Parents, teachers brace for return of virtual school in Philadelphia

Pennsylvania’s largest school district will be 100% virtual through at least mid-November. Families and teachers hope it goes better than the spring.

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Have your kids started school virtually? Tell us how it’s going.

Most Philadelphia public school children won’t have the familiar, first-day rituals this year. No crowded blacktops full of nervous parents. No new outfits to flaunt. No need for the latest superhero backpack.

The School District of Philadelphia decided in late July that it would hold classes online until at least mid-November.

That decision followed months of debate over how — or whether — to reopen city schools. Superintendent William Hite, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, and several school board members endorsed a plan that would have allowed students to return for two days of face-to-face learning a week.

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Stiff parent and staff backlash forced Hite to retract that plan. Instead, the district — and many of the city’s charter schools — opted to begin the year virtually.

Pressing questions remain. Working parents have to find child care. Educators wonder how they’ll reach students, academically and emotionally, from behind a computer screen.

District leaders believe they’re better prepared this time for online education. In the spring, Philadelphia needed about a month to buy laptops for students, creating a critical gap in instruction. Officials also decided, given the circumstances, not to penalize students who failed to complete work.

This time, teachers will grade students as they do during a normal year. The district already has laptops in hand — and the benefit of new city programs that are supposed to ensure free home internet for all Philadelphia families and access centers for students who don’t have viable home learning options.

Across much of southeastern Pennsylvania, public school districts will begin the year remotely, according to an analysis by the PLS Reporter. Meanwhile, many rural school districts and private schools plan to operate in-person — a fact that many fear could widen existing inequities.

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Teachers learn from spring experience

In March, when schools first closed their doors, teachers scrambled to stay in touch with students.

Keziah Ridgeway, a teacher at Northeast High School, created a free African American History course for students across the city. That experience, combined with the rest of her online teaching in the spring, has given her some momentum heading into the fall.

“I feel like I’m accustomed to it in many ways,” she said.

Leslie Greenberg, a middle-school English teacher at McCall Elementary in Center City, posted Facebook videos of herself reading novels aloud. It was her first attempt to form online connections with her students.

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Now, she feels more prepared — even optimistic.

“I’ve been for the last month thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re building the plane while we’re flying it,’” said Greenberg. “But I think there’s so much support for teachers right now.”

Greenberg said she did more teacher training this summer than at any point in her career. She’s figured out a few tricks to make online learning feel more comfortable. Start each class session with a game to get kids excited. Break off quickly into small groups so they don’t get bored.

“If I’m on a Zoom with 33 kids I’ve lost them within the first two minutes,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg has two kids of her own and created a “crazy spreadsheet” to see how her daily schedule overlaps with theirs. There seems to be small slivers where they can eat lunch together — or so she hopes.

“We’re just gonna have to see how things go,” she said.

Families stand in line at Philadelphia School District headquarters to pick up Chromebooks ahead of the start of the school year Wednesday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Fellow middle-school teacher Lauren Ballester shares Greenberg’s nerves, if not her bullishness.

“I’m nervous because I don’t know any of these kids and their families,” said Ballester, a 6th grade reading and social studies teacher at William H. Ziegler School in lower Northeast Philadelphia. “So when I’m reaching out to them, they have nothing to go off of.”

Ballester worried in April about the prospect of starting a school year online — without the ability to build relationships in person. So much trust, she said, comes from those little moments — a quick chat before class, a fun conversation in the hallways, an intuition gleaned from a student’s facial expression.

“I’m just worried it’s going to feel a lot more superficial,” said Ballester.

In April, Philadelphia teacher Lauren Ballester took her laptop outside to teach on nice days. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

She also doesn’t think the training she received before the school year truly prepared her for online teaching. Ridgeway, her counterpart from Northeast High School, agrees. She wishes the district delayed the start of school another week so that teachers had more time to explore tools like Zoom — which the district just approved for classroom use.

Above all, Ballester struggles to envision her students slogging through an online school day, hour after hour in front of a screen.

“I don’t think it’s good for them. I don’t think it’s good for me,” she said. “[But] I need to be a little bit optimistic because there are 60 eleven- and twelve-year-olds counting on me to help them through this year.”

‘Going to be tough’

Parent Ashley Tirado is more optimistic — at least for her kids. The Northeast Philly stay-at-home mom thinks her twelve-year-old daughter and sixteen-year-old son will perform better without the drama and bullying they dealt with when classes were in person.

“Now I ain’t gotta deal with that,” Tirado said while standing in line at district headquarters in Center City to pick up Chromebooks for her kids. “They are at home: ‘Sit down, do your work, and that is it!’”

Overbook resident April Core said she waited in line for four hours to pick up three Chromebooks for her kids. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Hundreds of parents and children waited in line to pick up laptops Tuesday afternoon — a last-minute scramble to prepare for virtual classes. The district says it has distributed Chromebooks to nearly 70% of its students since COVID-19 canceled in-person learning.

April Core spent four hours in line before emerging from district headquarters with three Chromebooks balanced in her arms. Core, who lives in Overbrook, works with the census and as a home health aid. As a single mom of middle and high schoolers, she’s worried about her kids’ academics slipping without a teacher to mind them.

“I just have to do my best to make sure they are focused early in the morning, and in the afternoon, that they focus on homework,” Core said. “It’s going to be tough.”

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