Hite: Public schools need relief, recovery, rebuilding

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted schools across the nation to approach teaching and learning very differently than in the past. Providing everything from educational packets, technology, food, and behavioral health services for children and their families are just a few examples of what school districts have had to manage as they also attempt to educate children. Additionally, this pandemic revealed the stark inequities that exist between urban districts and their wealthier suburban counterparts. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the School District of Philadelphia after schools were ordered closed in March.

Longstanding problems of educational and income inequity were magnified. The families of many of the students we served did not have the ability to provide computing devices to their children, nor did they have access to high-speed and reliable internet. Throughout the city, families were forced to locate food options for children who would normally have access to meals during school hours. Moreover, families had to find childcare, pick up learning materials, and take care of the complex needs of children who were otherwise educated by professionals trained to support their learning, behavior and physical needs. Students lost out on group activities, team sports, and recreational options on courts, fields and playgrounds. They were unable to experience traditional rights of passage like proms, class trips, graduations and award ceremonies. School-based staff had to quickly pivot to teaching remotely. This required substantial training on virtual instruction that included the use of technology and systems that would be necessary to deliver this form of instruction. Many teachers and administrators were learning new approaches and using new technologies to engage with their students while also supporting their own children who were also at home learning virtually.

In order to support this educational shift, the district was forced to mobilize efforts to address the inequities and inequalities that existed across our communities.

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Our efforts began by ensuring that our children continued to have access to meals even if schools were closed. Since closing, we have distributed over 5 million meals to students and families. Following this effort, we produced learning materials for families to enable their children to continue practicing on content previously taught.

Next, we sought to tackle the digital divide by equipping every student with a computing device that would provide them with access to the educational content that would be delivered virtually. We took on this challenge understanding that requiring families to provide the necessary technology for their children would be a significant struggle. With the generosity of Philadelphia donors including Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and wife Aileen Roberts, Philadelphia 76ers’ owners and others, along with school board approval to utilize existing rainy-day funds, we were able to purchase 90,000 Chromebooks.

After finding solutions to get all children devices, the next hurdle was ensuring that all students had access to high-speed and reliable internet. Through a focused partnership with Comcast, T-Mobile, the City of Philadelphia, the school district and the philanthropic community, a no-cost solution was provided (to all who qualified) with either in-home access or a portable hot spot for students lacking internet services.

All of these efforts were in addition to our continuing efforts to address longstanding environmental problems associated with an aging and historically underfunded infrastructure. Nonetheless, we have utilized the time that buildings have remained empty to identify, repair and in some cases upgrade our facilities. Since March, we have had district employees working hard in buildings to:

Remove over 280,000 feet of asbestos-containing material from schools.

Complete 24 paint and plaster projects and 147 classroom modernizations.

Begin 61 major capital projects like roof replacements, bathroom renovations and HVAC and electrical system upgrades.

Certify 24 more schools as Lead Safe, raising the total number of Certified Lead Safe Schools to 110.

Deep clean and disinfect every school using our expanded cleaning protocols.

Add, hire and train new custodial positions to support the new general cleaning…

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