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As Philly schools reopen, Kensington students and teachers still need help with online learning

online learning kensington
Genesis Mejía, a junior at Kensington Health Sciences Academy in Kensington, has been experiencing issues with online learning for months. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

After a year of online learning, Kensington students and teachers are continuing to ask for improvements and support from the School District of Philadelphia.

“It’s really hard to find the motivation now to get up and be in front of a computer … and a lot of students haven’t even been able to continue learning because there are not enough resources for everyone,” said Genesis Mejía, a junior at Kensington Health Sciences Academy (KHSA). “They’re just, ‘Go with the flow until we go back,’ and I don’t think that’s realistic.”

From internet connection problems to traveling over six miles to the school district-run technology centers, Mejía said Kensington families have struggled to participate in online learning since the pandemic started.

“Your expectations as a student don’t change,” Mejía added. “Your WiFi can be all kinds of messed up, but if you’re a student and are enrolled in school, there’s no pushing a quiz, a lesson plan, or something back a day. You basically need to figure it out on your own.”

Schools will reopen for some students, while the majority stays online

In March 2020, the school district closed its buildings to stop the spread of coronavirus. Soon after, the city and school district spent over $28 million on Chromebook and internet programs, among other services, to better equip students for online learning. Now, a year later, a small percentage of students are returning to in-person learning — a hybrid structure with two days in the classroom and three days online — while almost 92% of students remain online as of April 5, a school district spokesperson wrote to Kensington Voice in an email.

Mejía is among the 92% of students, which consists of students in third grade and up. 

According to the school district, 9,555 pre-K to second-grade students will return to in-person learning this week. That’s roughly 8% of the total students enrolled in district-operated schools. The school district plans to begin reopening schools for some third to eighth-grade students by April 26, a school district spokesperson wrote to Kensington Voice in an email.

While online learning, hybrid or not, continues for the majority of students, Mejía said she and her fellow students deserve a better plan from the school district. That plan should address accessibility issues, like internet connection and access to tech support, which families have been raising for months, she added.

online learning kensington
Students and families walk into the School District of Philadelphia’s main offices. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

School District and City’s digital accessibility programs

A “digital divide” has existed in the school district for years, especially in Kensington. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimates from 2017 to 2019, out of the nearly 600,000 households in the school district, more than 30% of those households didn’t have access to a computer or laptop in their home, and around 26% didn’t have a subscription to internet service during that time. In the Kensington area, the issue heightens. Before the pandemic started, 49% of households in Kensington Voice’s coverage area didn’t have access to a computer or laptop at home, and 32% didn’t have a subscription to internet service, according to the Census’ 2019 estimates.

In late March 2020, the school district spent $11 million distributing Chromebooks to students. And in August, the City worked with Comcast, the school district, and other community partners to create PHLConnectED, a $17.1 million program providing eligible families with either a mobile internet hotspot from T-Mobile or free internet through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program. Around that time, the city also opened dozens of Access Centers where students who couldn’t safely learn at home or were unsupervised during the day could participate in online learning.

Eligible families for the PHLConnectED program include the following: students who don’t have internet access, students who only have mobile internet access, students experiencing housing insecurity, students whose households utilize public benefits, students who are English Language Learners, or students enrolled in individualized education programs.

Despite those efforts, the school district wasn’t able to close all internet accessibility gaps.

Days before the start of the 2020-21 school year, school district officials estimated that as many as 18,000 households still needed internet access, reported The Inquirer. According to the school district, the estimation was based on preliminary data from two main internet service providers.

By mid-March 2021, after school district and city efforts to bridge this gap, around 15,000 households had received free internet through PHLConnectED. Additionally, more than 100,000 Chromebooks have been distributed to students in district-operated schools — which serve a total of 119,492 students — a school district spokesperson wrote in an email to Kensington Voice.

Accessing the internet: Slow speeds and not many alternatives

Students with internet access struggle with online learning too, especially when sharing the internet with family members.

With the internet speeds initially provided by Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, the average-size household in the school district couldn’t use the internet simultaneously for work and school. An average household size for the Philadelphia school district is about three people per family, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

Mejía said her family used the Internet Essentials program until it stopped loading her schoolwork, her sister’s schoolwork, and her mother’s professional work at the same time — despite Comcast’s claim that it could support an entire household. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Comcast’s Internet Essentials’ download speed at that time — 25 megabits per second — qualified as high-speed internet. However, many Philadelphia advocates say that isn’t enough for an entire household.

In September 2020, Mejía joined students from across the country in a press conference demanding Comcast to increase internet speeds. And by January 2021, the Internet Essentials program came under more scrutiny when a former Comcast employee detailed in a blog post how the program isn’t suitable for a multi-person household.

Due to national pressure, Comcast boosted the Internet Essentials program’s internet speeds in March.

Since switching to PHLConnectED’s mobile hotspot program, Mejía’s family experiences faster internet speeds, and she has no desire to return to Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, she said. 

Tech Support Centers located miles away from Kensington

In addition to internet barriers, some Kensington students’ Chromebooks are breaking. And for a lot of repairs, they need to visit a tech center. 

The school district provides three Parent & Family Technology Support Centers for the entire city. For families in Kensington, the closest center, Martin Luther King High School, is more than six miles or an hour-plus bus ride away

Since September, tech workers at MLK High School have received almost half of all district-wide service requests — totaling more than 9,000 service requests — according to the school district. Requests include fixing internet connection problems or broken computers due to mishandling, accidents with pets, and — in some cases — bed bugs and mites that have crawled inside devices.

online learning kensington
Tech experts at the MLK High School tech support center prepare for the start of a new service day on March 12, 2021. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

Parents sacrifice a lot to get their child’s Chromebook fixed, according to Kristin Luebbert, a high school teacher at The U School near Norris Square.

“One woman called me because I had her child in my homeroom,” said Luebbert. “She said she went up to the Northeast [tech support center]. It took her an hour and a half to get there. She went all the way up to the Northeast, and they closed early.”

Since the tech support centers are so far away, Kensington parents are forced to send their child on public transit or take time off work to go themselves, Luebbert added. She addressed this in her testimony to the Board of Education in December 2020, likening the trek to a “hero’s journey.”

Social studies teacher Ismael Jimenez experiences the same issue at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) High School, which is down the road from The U School.

“I’ve had several students who have told me how difficult it is … it’s impossible for a mother to get [to a tech support center] in time, when it’s open, to be actually able to get their computer checked out or get a new one,” said Jimenez, adding that he hasn’t seen some of his students in a month due to computer issues.

online learning kensington
At the MLK High School tech center, parts of broken computers are separated into different boxes to be recycled or disposed of. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

The school district is aware of these concerns yet will not be opening more tech support centers at this time, a school district spokesperson wrote in an email to Kensington Voice.

Luebbert — whose two children attended Philly public schools and now also teach at public schools in the city — sees a potential tech solution in replicating the school district’s “grab-and-go” meal sites, which were created last March, she said.

“It doesn’t seem to me to be hard to add some more spaces. We have food distribution sites on Fridays and in schools,” Luebbert said, suggesting that a “tech expert” wouldn’t be needed. “If they’re just going to swap [Chromebooks] out, it could be a very simple process.”

In an email to Kensington Voice, the school district said damaged Chromebooks can only be exchanged if the repair takes longer than 10 minutes. For the 2021-22 school year, the school district is considering purchasing 5% or 10% more Chromebooks for each school — based on the school’s student population. 

The proposed alternative would allow students to exchange broken Chromebooks at their own school instead of tech centers, however, this plan has yet to be finalized.

What happens next?

March 8 was the fifth time the school district attempted to reopen schools since the start of the pandemic. This time, they reopened 53 school buildings for some pre-K to second-grade students — a change that came a week after thousands of city educators, including Kensington teachers, protested the reopening due to the risk of COVID-19.

In the end, the school district and the teachers’ union settled this dispute, agreeing that those 53 schools had the necessary ventilation to offer a safe learning environment — despite none of the schools being equipped with window fans for extra ventilation, and teachers who still need vaccinations not being able to receive them beforehand, according to WHYY. Additionally, students could choose whether or not to return to in-person learning.

Yet, less than two weeks after the reopening, Mayfair Elementary School closed down due to a coronavirus outbreak, reported WHYY. Mayfair reopened on April 1, but Edward Gideon School in North Philly, which also closed down due to a coronavirus outbreak on March 26, will remain closed until April 11, reported 6abc Philadelphia

Throughout April, more schools will reopen. But for now, the online learning system will remain the same.

For the majority of students continuing online learning — whether due to not having the option to enter a hybrid model or not wanting to risk spreading COVID-19 — Mejía said she hopes the school district will finally meet their needs.

“Everybody’s going through a lot right now, especially because we’re in such uncertain times,” Mejía added. “And somebody shouldn’t have to worry about school when many families don’t even have the resources that they need — and I’m not only speaking about computers and WiFi — I’m talking about having food to eat or access to information about resources.”

Online learning resources for students:

  • Any student without a Chromebook can contact their school to schedule an appointment to pick one up. 
  • Any eligible student household can receive free internet service by contacting the city’s 24-hour hotline at 211.
  • Anyone in Philly can contact the city’s Digital Navigator network to receive free help with getting low-cost internet, a low-cost or free laptop, and additional help with accessing technology. To learn more, click here.

Editors: Zari Tarazona, Claire Wolters / Designer: Henry Savage

Kensington Voice is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.

What did you think about this story? Send a note to editors@kensingtonvoice.com, and we’ll consider publishing it in our Voices section. You can also tell us what you think in person at our neighborhood events.

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