Gimme structure: Why some Philly parents are eager for online learning to begin

Philadelphia is slowly moving school online. We spoke with families to hear about their hopes for this massive educational experiment.

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Wayne and Andrea Clark with their children Molly, 9, Caleb, 11, Roisin, 13, and Cianan, 6, on the steps of their home in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Wayne and Andrea Clark with their children Molly, 9, Caleb, 11, Roisin, 13, and Cianan, 6, on the steps of their home in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Every night before bed, Andrea Clark and her husband have a little ritual where they recap all the things on their kids’ agendas for the next day.

Usually, it’s a long list. These days, not so much.

“Every night, I look at my husband and I go, ‘Tomorrow we have … nothing,’” said Clark, who lives in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia.

Clark is a per-diem physical therapist who hasn’t gotten called into work in nearly a month. Her husband was recently laid off from his job as an engineer.

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Their four kids — who attend three different Philadelphia public schools in three different parts of the city — have received a smattering of unofficial assignments over the past month. Their commitment to completing those assignments has been uneven, at best.

Her oldest child, age 13, became less motivated when she realized her teachers weren’t allowed to grade the work she posted online. Her youngest, age 6, doesn’t care about grades. He also doesn’t sit still for more than an hour — and that’s on a good day.

“I couldn’t imagine being a kindergarten teacher,” said Clark, with a long pause. “Like, I … I …”

That pause — that “how-does-anyone-possibly-do-this” pause — sums up how a lot of Philadelphia parents feel right now. But relief could be on the way.

With school buildings closed for the remainder of the academic year, Philadelphia and many other public school systems are going virtual. The district has distributed tens of thousands of Chromebooks and, by April 20, all teachers are supposed to post review material. On May 4, schools are allowed to start grading assignments and requiring participation.

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In other words, something that approximates actual school is on the horizon.

The district offered some guidelines for how this grand educational experiment should look. But most of the details have been left to individual schools.

What many parents say they want is a version of school that establishes new, predictable routines — an actual schedule around which they can shape their days.

“It’s important for the kids to have the structure,” said Clark. “I just wish things would go back to normal.”

Clark’s family — with two homebound parents and two personal computers at the ready — is relatively well-positioned to make the online transition. But even families like hers have found it difficult to adjust.

Take Temwa Wright, a West Philadelphia mom who works from home. Her two boys attend a middle school that gives every child a laptop at the beginning of the school year. Wright admits, it’s the perfect situation for online learning. Yet she’s found that — unless she’s in the room monitoring her kids — work rarely gets completed.

“They’re all over the place,” Wright said of her sons. “They’re going to the kitchen every so often, getting snacks. Like, ‘Hello?! How many times have you eaten?’”

She even overheard one of her sons mildly dissing her education skills on a video call with one of his teachers.

“He said, ‘I wish I had more than one teacher. Right now, I just have my mom. And she’s doing the best she can,’” Wright recounted.

Wright hopes the dawn of official online instruction brings “predictable structure and consistent structure.”

Evette Gordon, a mom of two in Northeast Philadelphia, agrees wholeheartedly. Her youngest is a fourth-grader who has autism.

“With autistic children, the key to them is keeping them on a schedule,” she said.

That’s been especially difficult with school out of session. Her son usually learns in a small classroom with the assistance of an aide, and, at times, an occupational therapist who helps him with tasks like holding a pencil or using scissors. He’s not getting that kind of hands-on help anymore.

Over the past month, Gordon has been thrust into a role typically filled by several professionals. She’s balancing her “mom-as-teacher” role with her full-time job as a medical claims examiner — plus the classes she’s taking to become a nurse. She can’t get much help from her husband because he works as a forklift driver for a hardware store and continues to work outside the home.

That leaves Gordon stretched thin as she attempts to keep her son engaged.

“Sometimes he has a breakdown and he’ll cry for an hour,” she said. “I don’t like putting him through that.”

The school district says it will meet the needs of every special education child “as feasible.” However that looks, Gordon hopes it’s enough support to make sure her son can actually use his new, district-provided laptop.

“Success for me would be if my son would not give me any problems and go online and do his schoolwork,” she said.

Gordon and other parents say they need this new version of school to be consistent, predictable and substantial enough to keep their kids occupied for a significant chunk of the day.

Some said they’d prefer online classes where students and their teachers gather in a video chat — like actual school without the bricks and mortar. But they’d settle for something less, as long as it involves real work, accountability and a sense of normalcy.

Evette Gordon said she’s using the start of virtual school as a way to reset routines in her house. On April 19, she’s enforcing the usual bedtimes and on April 20, she’s waking her kids up at the same hour they’d rise on a typical school day.

She wants her children to feel like school is back. For her son especially, she’s worried that a six-month absence from school could cascade into bigger issues come September.

“He’s gonna say, ‘No mom, I don’t wanna go to school,’” Gordon said, “because he’s used to being home now and not doing anything.”

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