On Friday, March 13, the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, announced it would close its schools to protect citizens from the novel coronavirus. Many other districts closed around the same time. Many districts quickly mobilized to offer instruction online, but some have struggled, citing equity issues.
Philadelphia is one of the largest examples. On the evening of Tuesday, March 17, a day and a half after schools closed, two top district officials sent principals a memo stating that, “To ensure equity, remote instruction should not be provided to students, including through the internet, technology at home, by phone, or otherwise.” The memo attracted national coverage and criticism, including a Twitter campaign titled #TeachOurKids.
Philadelphia’s superintendent, William Hite, has since clarified and updated district policy several times, while insisting that Philadelphia’s teachers cannot teach until all students can access the internet. Since schools closed on March, the only education the district has provided consists of “optional Learning Guides (K-12)…offered for personal use” and “aligned to areas previously taught to students during this school year.” The learning guides do not cover new topics, and supervision is left to “parents and caregivers.” Teachers do not distribute or grade the learning guides. They are available as online PDFs, but printouts can be picked up at distribution sites.
On Thursday, March 26, the district approved a plan to distribute up to 50,000 laptops to students, or 40 percent of the 124,000 students enrolled in district-managed schools. These purchases were subsidized by a $5 million donation by the CEO of Comcast, whose headquarters are in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia School Partnership, also backed by private philanthropy, is purchasing another 15,000 laptops for students in charter and parochial schools.
Distribution of laptops is expected to be more or less complete by next week, and students will log into Google Classroom on April 20. But even then, students will be still expected to work independently. Teachers will not start grading assignments until May 4—seven full weeks after schools closed. (One of those weeks was spring break.) The last scheduled school day is June 12, and the district currently has no plans to make up the missed weeks by extending the school year.
How many students have home internet in Philadelphia?
News stories explaining Philadelphia’s remote learning policy have repeatedly cited district data seeming to show that about half its students lack internet access. But most data contradict that number. The US Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey estimated that 80 percent of households in the Philadelphia school district had a broadband internet subscription, and 88 percent had one or more types of computer. On the district’s own survey of parents in 2019, 91 percent of respondents answered “yes” when asked, “Do you have internet at home?”
Estimates for Philadelphia are not too far off national figures. A 2018 Pew survey found that 85 percent of US households with school-age children had high-speed internet, including 65 percent of households with school-age children and incomes under $30,000. In the School District of Philadelphia, median family income was $55,000 in 2018, and poor families have since 2011 been eligible for Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, which offers high-speed broadband for $9.95 monthly and a computer for less than $150. Comcast is now offering 2 months of Internet Essentials for free, which would get students through the end of the school year.
What data is the district relying on?
So where did the district get the idea that half of students lack access? The claim that keeps getting repeated in media reports is that “only 45% of students in grades three through five accessed the internet from a computer at home, compared with 56% in grades six through eight, and 58% for high school students.” But where did those numbers come from?
The source is the district’s 2018-19 survey of students which asked: “How do you get on the internet?” Students could choose among nine answers:
○ I don’t go on the internet
○ At a library
○ At my school
○ At a community center
○ At a local computer lab
○ At an after school program
○ A computer at home
○ A smartphone or tablet
The question is ambiguous. It doesn’t directly address the question of access. The question asks how students typically got on the internet under ordinary circumstances. It doesn’t ask how they could access the internet if they needed to—for example, during the present quarantine.
Across all grade levels, 51 percent of students checked the box indicating that they sometimes got on the internet from a computer at home. But it is not clear what that means. It doesn’t mean what news reports imply—that only 51 percent of students had access to a home computer connected to the internet. Although students could check as many boxes as they wanted to, with nine options there is no guarantee that a student who used a home computer once in a while, or could if they needed to, would check that box.
In addition, 70 percent of students checked the box indicating that they sometimes accessed the internet from a smartphone or tablet. It seems likely that one or both of these devices would be accessible at home, but it is hard to know for sure. In addition, there is a big difference between accessing the internet from a tablet, which meets the district’s requirements for remote learning, and accessing it from a smartphone, which would make remote instruction more difficult.
Because students could check more than one box, and because tablets and smartphones were lumped together, it is not clear from this question how many students had access to home internet through a computer or tablet, as the district’s remote learning policy requires. But it could easily be close to the 80 or 90 percent that other data sources suggest.
The student survey also included a question, which has not been publicized, asking “How often do you use the internet?” 79 percent of students answered that they did so “every day” (63 percent) or “almost every day” (16 percent).
The district survey had further problems. The student response rate was 71 percent, and the parent response rate was only 23 percent. By contrast, the American Community Survey has a 2018 response rate of 92 percent.
On balance, it seems likely that about 80 to 90 percent of Philadelphia students had home internet access when schools closed on March 16. Yet the district continues to deny those student instruction on equity grounds. For the vast majority of students, it seems the main barrier to accessing online instruction is not technology, but district policy.
Is denying instruction equitable?
It’s not clear that denying instruction to everyone is actually an equitable policy. The district’s notion of equity seems to focus narrowly on equity within the district. But Philadelphians do not live in a bubble. When Philadelphia’s students leave school, they will have to compete for jobs and college admissions with students from Philadelphia’s suburbs and other cities. Many of those districts are starting to offer online instruction without Philadelphia’s qualms.
As long as Philadelphia denies its students online instruction, they will fall behind students from other districts. What’s equitable about that?
Philadelphia didn’t need to stop its schools from offering online instruction in March. It could have allowed 80 to 90 percent of students to access instruction online, and sorted out the equity issues for the remaining 10 to 20 percent as it went. It could still do that. There is no compelling justification for withholding online teaching until May. And the district should make up for lost time by extending the school year through the state limit of June 30.
Paul von Hippel is an Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin, where he teaches education policy and research methods. He thanks his employer for finding emergency childcare that let him write this article and teach his classes.
Read more from Education Next on coronavirus and Covid-19.
Last updated April 9, 2020