What’d You Learn At School Today? - Assessing Distance Learning in Philadelphia

By: Lola Milder

June 23, 2020, 3:10 p.m

Today, and for the past two months, the 200,000 students that make up the Philadelphia School District are learning through a screen. Sitting at a desk has been replaced by muted microphones and blank cameras in a new age of Zoom calls and Google Meets. On the district’s website, information about digital learning and Chromebook distribution sits right between guidelines for obtaining Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) cards and a list of the city’s meal distribution sites. It’s clear that there are many other, larger things going on in the lives of many Philadelphians outside of the classroom (or, rather, Google Classroom), both students and not alike.


“It just doesn’t work the way everyone thought it would,” admits Isabella Eisenstein, a sophomore at Girls’ High. Isabella has three classes a day, Monday through Thursday. However, she’s noticed that, since online classes started, the number of attendees has trickled down to about half, leaving roughly 15 students in class. Isabella’s story is reflected throughout Philly. In May, The Inquirer found that just over half of students were coming to class. Although some of Isabella’s absent classmates and the rest of Philly’s student body are admittedly just taking it easier, happy with their current grades and confident in the protection of the district’s non-punitive policy, others are facing different and somewhat inescapable obstacles. “A lot of people I know don’t have internet at home,” Isabella continued, describing how she speaks up as teachers take attendance, but is often met with suspicion surrounding the validity of those internet issues. Although chromebooks have been successfully distributed, the district continues to struggle to establish Internet access for these students, roughly 40% of the district’s student body, rendering their chromebooks almost useless.


A growing number of students across the United States are burdened by this gap in accessibility. According to ParentsTogether, a non-profit advocacy group, kids in low income households are three times as likely to not have consistent access than their wealthier counterparts. Today, 40% of these low-income students are accessing remote learning as little as once a week or less. 


“And you can’t really talk to a teacher about those personal things in the middle of a Google Meet,” adds Isabella, reflecting on how the loose establishment of office hours and the public nature of virtual classes have made it difficult for students to speak up and get the support they need. 


This is an unsettling reality as we approach the unknown of summer and the inevitable return of school in the fall. I think everyone can agree things need to change to anticipate the continuation of any amount of virtual learning. “If online learning continues,” Caleb McCreary, a junior at Science Leadership Academy, says, “I think teachers need to identify the students that need extra help and reach out to figure out another plan” - because this one is not working. 


“I’m really not learning much at all,” continues Caleb, “I’m just not getting as much individualized assistance during class which I would normally rely on.” In Isabella’s classes, “it feels like they’re giving more work because we have more down time.” But, it’s not the same. She feels that “a lot of people don’t understand the work that they’re handing in, it’s become too easy to just copy answers.”


“It’s scary, too, because I’m going into my junior year,” Isabella confesses. The looming presence of future standardized tests, like the PSAT, SAT, PSSAs, and Keystones raise more concerns about the impact of these months of inadequate instruction - especially since it places a larger burden on those that have more limited access, like low-income households and public school systems - communities that are already facing greater inequity.


Of course, it’s not just the self-reliant high schoolers in Philly that are facing online learning. The children of Laurie Mazer, a fourth and first grader at Andrew Jackson School, are amongst the city’s elementary students making this transition. “It’s more hectic,” says Aine, the first grader, describing her morning of sight words and Junie B. Jones. Her brother, Diarmuid, laughs, agreeing that “my teacher just wants us to have a bunch of work so we don’t bother our parents,” and then conceding cheekily that there was still quite a bit of “parent-bothering” going on. They have a meeting every morning, but the classes are recorded, so it’s not compulsory. Usually, their dad, Brian McManus, spends the mornings with them as they work, checking on their progress and keeping them on task. It’s “helpful but sometimes annoying,” according to his two students. I’m sure he feels the same. As I spoke with Aine and Diarmuid through Zoom, their mother sat in another Zoom call, a work meeting, a few feet away. It was a blatant picture of the way parents working from home are improvising to juggle work and their children’s needs and education. On the other hand, for essential workers continuing to work, it’s difficult to establish childcare or to guarantee that their children are engaging in any amount of remote learning. Even more, that burden may fall upon older siblings in those households, making it more difficult for them to focus on their own work. 


Of course, children are adjusting right alongside their parents. Diarmuid and Aine described the new games they’ve invented to play with a friend from a distance. They groan about some assignments and enthusiastically describe others, showing off a recent art project where they got to recreate famous paintings. They miss their friends and resent the restrictions of Google Meet’s chat box. 


I resonate with many of their sentiments, despite the decade that separates us. Still, in this strange time, I’m grateful for the work and dedication of the faculty of our district and schools in the frantic adjustment to this unprecedented circumstance. Yet, I continue to feel increasingly anxious about what school is going to look like for the next year. I’m adamant that the school district needs to do more to prepare for and to support their teachers and students in the coming school year. 


For now, thank your teachers, check in on your classmates, and stay safe.