New Pa. law allows students to repeat a grade, but the deadline to decide is one week away

Physically distanced, and with protective partitions, students work on an art project during class

In this March 2, 2021, file photo, physically distanced, and with protective partitions, students work on an art project during class at the Sinaloa Middle School in Novato, Calif. (AP Photo/Haven Daley, File)

All Pennsylvania K-12 students now have the option to repeat a grade this upcoming school year. But the deadline to apply is right around the corner and many families are unaware of the opportunity.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bill — Act 66 — on June 30 in an effort to make up for education gaps stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The deadline for families to sign up is July 15.

All students are eligible, even if they met the requirements to move on to their next grade level. Students with disabilities who turned 21 during the 2020-21 school year also have the opportunity to repeat a grade.

In school districts across the commonwealth, many students spent most of the year learning virtually. In Philadelphia, students in lower grades suffered academically, and many high school students, the majority of whom were in virtual school the entire year, missed more class than usual.

So it could be that many families would like to consider the opportunity, but many of them don’t have the information and there’s only one week left to think about it.

Leaving families without clarity of information and time to consider their options often leaves them “feeling powerless,” said Edwin Mayorga, a professor of urban educational policy at Swarthmore College.

Mayorga, who is also a parent of a student at FACTS Charter School in Philadelphia, said he didn’t find out about the retainment option until this week.

He is not surprised by the miscommunication between the Pennsylvania Department of Education, school districts, and school communities. He studies community and family engagement with school systems.

“It ends up being indicative of a chronic problem, which is really bad practice around engaging families in a way that is really respectful and timely,” said Mayorga, who noted this is especially true for people of color and families who do not speak English as a first language.

Mayorga said the responsibility for miscommunication starts with the state and trickles down into each school district.

Cait Mack (right) and her girlfriend, Lisa Yeager (left) considered having their children, Liv and Ceci, repeat their grades because of the pandemic, In the end, they decided against it. (Provided by Cait Mack)

Cait Mack, a parent in the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County, didn’t receive a notification from her district about the option to let her two kids repeat their grades. She heard about the opportunity through posts on a school community Facebook page.

“It seems kind of late to be sending [the offer] now,” said Mack. “For the people where that might be an option, they’re not getting very much time.”

Mack has decided not to retain her two children. But she understands the importance of this decision for families and knows it can take a long time before a parent feels comfortable making such a choice.

Mack and her girlfriend Lisa retained their third grader, Liv, when she was in Kindergarten. They met with Liv’s teacher twice before deciding to hold her back a year.

“That was something we sat on for a bit,” said Mack. “Because it feels like a big decision when you’re telling your kid that they’re not going to move up with their friends.”

Mack said Liv has Attention Deficit Disorder, and has an individualized education program in school. She had a tough time focusing this year, especially during virtual learning, her mother said.

But her parents provided Liv with extra support, a tutor, and extra textbooks, so she wouldn’t have to repeat another grade. They worried their daughter would face criticism in school for being two years older than her classmates.

“We wonder what kind of other issues could that prop up, from the social aspect,” said Mack.

For families who want to register their children for retention, they can submit a form on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website.

If parents miss the July 15 deadline, the Department of Education suggests parents contact their individual schools to discuss the schools’ established policies and procedures.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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