The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a virus-sized monkey wrench into public school operations.
With a state-wide school closure order, educators are left with little choice but to turn to the Internet to teach their students.
But some are better equipped to make the switch — literally.
While many of us take online access for granted, that is not a luxury afforded the staff and families of the Pottstown School District.
Cyber Handicap Highlights Inequity
Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez says the first of several obstacles to Pottstown implementing distance learning is the fact that many households in the borough do not have computers capable of receiving what the teachers are providing.
The district is prevented by law and by any sense of fair play from providing an education only to students who can afford a computer at home.
"It would cost us about $1 million to put a device in the house of every student in Pottstown," said Rodriguez. "That's not an easy thing to do when the state underfunds us every year by $13 million."
He is referring to Pennsylvania's fair funding formula, adopted in 2015 and designed to provide additional resources to underfunded communities and ensure a level educational playing field for all students of the Commonwealth.
But given that only a tiny fraction of the state's education budget is distributed according to that formula, the playing field remains decidedly unbalanced for districts like Pottstown.
"COVID-19 is only the latest of Pottstown’s challenges. For decades, Pottstown schools have been severely underfunded by the state. This year alone, Harrisburg shortchanged Pottstown by $13.4 million," notes a letter to the editor signed by the entire Pottstown School Board.
"This chronic underfunding has resulted in high property taxes, low teacher pay and reduced programming and opportunity for our students. It’s a serious injustice that has been harming our kids and the entire community for years," the board letter observes.
Rodriguez understands this beyond his professional experience in Pottstown. As the president of the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools, he hears from districts all over the state that face the same challenges.
He acknowledged that the coronavirus crisis — which puts the same challenges to all 500 school districts rich or poor — has put the inequity of Pennsylvania's school funding methods into sharp relief by highlighting how much harder it is for underfunded districts to meet those challenges.
Regulations meant to ensure accountability are now also providing another challenge — one Rodriguez said he raised during a call with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey.
Although Pottstown was able to provide all high school students with Chromebook computers, but not to the lower grades as neighboring districts like Pottsgrove have done.
"It's a tale of two school districts," Rodriguez said.
Ironically, there are Chromebooks in the district, provided by a 21st-Century Grant, which is federal money funneled to schools through the states.
But the district may not be able to use them when they are needed most.
"We have a couple hundred at the middle school, but when we asked the 21st Century program if we could reallocate them in this crisis, we were told if we did that, we would have to pay for them," Rodriguez said. "It is ridiculous."
The need is there, said Rodriguez, noting that a district survey of district families found "several hundred need a device in the house."
Computers Aplenty in Spring-Ford
By contrast households in the Spring-Ford Area School District who need district-provided computers may get more than one.
"We’ve handed out 511 Chromebooks, and expect to distribute about 260 more on Monday," Erin Crew, the district's director of communications, marketing and media, wrote Thursday in response to an email query from MediaNews Group.
"Based on the rigor of the online curriculum, we have determined that students in grades 7 through 12 can request an individual device, while students in grades K through 6 will be issued a device to share with siblings," Crew wrote.
"For instance, a family with two high school students and two elementary school students will receive three devices total. A family with one high school student and one elementary school student will receive two devices. A family with two elementary school students will receive one shared device," wrote Crew.
"Our first round (of computer distribution) was specifically for anyone who self-identified or was identified by their teacher/principal as having no regular access to a device at home," Crew wrote of the first 511 Chromebooks distributed.
"Rounds two and three are for any families who need additional devices based on the number of children at home," she wrote.
The 771 computers being distributed by Spring-Ford represent less than 10 percent of the district's roughly 8,000 students, which suggests that the rest already have access to computers in their homes.
A Special Challenge
Another aspect of Pottstown's demographics presents another challenge, Rodriguez said.
Delivering the "free and appropriate public education" the law requires to special education students can be a challenge to do online. Each special education student has an "Individual Education Plan," called an IEP, crafted with the school and parents that must be followed.
Many of those plans call for in-person, hands-on services, something Rodriguez, a former special education teacher, understands on many levels and presents numerous challenges.
Coming up with a way to accommodate a few special education students is significantly easier than doing it for 20 percent of your student population, which is how many of Pottstown's students are in some type of special education program.
"That's a huge question for us, about Internet service and delivering special education," he said.
Doing What They Can
This array of obstacles has not stopped Pottstown educators from reaching out to their students online.
The staff has used Facebook posts extensively with everything from science and art lesson videos, to links to educational resources like PBS educational programming; stories on Audible; teacher resource pages for student activities at home;
Franklin Elementary School posted about messages teachers are sending home about enrichment activities.
Rupert Elementary School Principal Matt Moyer has become something of a Facebook video star on the school's page, reading stories, conducting science experiments in his kitchen and demonstrating how to make "faux stained glass" windows.
"The teachers are working," Rodriguez said.
For the time, being, "pre-k through 6th grade will receive one language arts and one math activity per day until spring break, which begins Thursday, April 9. If the closure is extended, the activities will continue into the next week.
Seventh through 12th grades will receive activities based on student courses in English, math, science, social studies posted in their student emails and Google classroom.
The long-term plan is considerably more unformed and the district confirmed there is not yet a date when the district will shift from its short-term plan.
Will it Be Enough?
"A lot of districts are moving forward, as they should," Rodriguez said.
But Pottstown won't leave students behind because they do not have access to online learning.
"We can't, in good conscience, go forward with new learning unless we can do so for all students," said Rodriguez. "We can't go ahead and offer services to the 75 percent who might be able to access it."
Unable to provide further classes, online or in-person, Pottstown may lose the entire second semester, Rodriguez said.
"We're doing enrichment and review now, but a lot depends on whether we go back to class in April," said Rodriguez.
"Consider a student who is taking algebra 1. They're had 35 days of class out of 90, that's not even half," he said. "Will that student have to re-take the class? How is that fair?"
"How do we gain that time back? It's not like we can just extend the school year because of a bad snowstorm," said Rodriguez. "The teachers have a contract that outlines how many days they work a year, and they are working now."
"So now we're looking at major questions like 'what does graduation look like?'" Rodriguez said.
"Quite frankly, I don't see how we fully recover," he said. "All I can say is we are simply going to do the very best that we can."