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The School District of Philadelphia is likely going to reopen this fall under a hybrid in-person and online model. Credit: Kylie Cooper

Penn's Academically Based Community Service courses, many of which work directly with the School District of Philadelphia, are awaiting decisions on how to conduct courses in the fall.

Philadelphia's school district is likely to reopen under a hybrid in-person and online model and is expected to officially announce their reopening plan later this week, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Staff and students will wear masks except during “mask breaks,” high-touch surfaces will be cleaned every four hours, and children will attend school in shifts in order to minimize in person interaction.

ABCS Research and Program Coordinator Faustine Sun said the Netter Center for Community Partnerships is currently planning for ABCS courses, which allow students to volunteer with local schools and organizations, to be conducted online. Penn students engaging in off-campus partnerships, including in ABCS courses, will need to follow guidelines from both the University and the local school district.

Penn plans to conduct the fall 2020 through a hybrid model, allowing students to return to campus or complete the semester remotely. Classes with fewer than 25 students may meet in-person, space permitted and at the professor's discretion, but the majority of fall classes are expected to be online.   

Following the transition to online learning in the spring semester, students in ABCS courses reported challenges in adapting to a virtual format even though the courses still worked to implement community service elements.

Penn faculty and School District of Philadelphia partners have been collaborating to figure out how to adapt ABCS courses to an online format, Sun said.

Credit: Yolanda Chen

A student presented the work she did with her ABCS course, EDUC 421, during the 2014 ABCS Summit. There was no summit this year.

According to Executive Director of the Netter Center’s University-Assisted Community School Programs Bianca del Rio, the Netter Center has been communicating with principals and teachers at partnered schools which include William L. Sayre High School and Paul Robeson High School. 

Del Rio said she believes communication between the Netter Center and partner schools, as well as with students and families, has increased after transitioning to a virtual format this past spring. The Netter Center was able to utilize social media as a means of communication with students, and also worked closely with schools to make sure students received Chromebooks and had internet access.

The transition to online learning has not been easy for many students in Philadelphia as not all students have access to a computer at home, del Rio said. She said it is of the utmost importance to continue advocating for families to receive support from the school district ahead of its fall decision.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time on [advocating for support] and we will continue to do so in order to support the ramping up of young people into the virtual space for learning,” del Rio said. “We anticipate that we will be engaged in this hybrid learning environment for at least the next year.”

According to a reopening survey conducted by the Philadelphia school district, the top safety measures identified by parent and community member respondents were mask-wearing, daily building cleaning, and hand washing stations.

Although guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention warn that fully reopening schools would be the “highest risk” for spreading COVID-19, the Trump administration is urging schools and universities to reopen in the fall. 

Earth & environmental science professor Richard Pepino teaches ENVS 404: Urban Environments: Speaking About Lead in West Philadelphia, which typically has students work with Philadelphia high school students to learn about lead poisoning and measure lead presence in the local environment.

Pepino said he does not know if his class will be conducted in person, but believes it is unlikely that students will have access to laboratories to conduct research on lead poisoning like usual. He is also concerned about the loss of in-person contact between students.

“To me personally, it’s probably the most rewarding because it gives students in West Philadelphia a chance to see what Penn is all about,” Pepino said. “So it brings them in contact with the University, but also probably more important it brings our Penn students in contact with our neighborhoods in our communities."

Integrating Philadelphia high school students into his course would be complicated if Philadelphia schools conduct in-person instruction on a rotational schedule, Pepino said.

Credit: Maria Murad LALS 328 professor Catherine Bartch speaking at Kelly Writers House's Latina Poetry Night in Nov. 2019.

Associate Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies program Catherine Bartch, who teaches LALS 328: Diplomacy in the Americas: The Penn Model OAS Program, believes her class will be conducted online in the fall. 

In her course, Penn students mentor high school students from Philadelphia and Norristown and teach students about politics in Latin America through interactive lectures.

In order to adapt to an online format, Bartch plans to stay away from large lectures — instead, she hopes to hold brief lectures at the beginning of class and then place students in breakout sessions for activities. Bartch is also considering virtual tours to introduce students to Penn, or get PennCards for high school students so they can access the library.

“We still want to support them in whatever way we can, and give them access to Penn’s resources,” Bartch said.

Music and urban studies professor Molly McGlone teaches MUSC 018: Music in Urban Spaces, where Penn students volunteer with music teachers at different public schools.

McGlone said her class will likely be conducted completely online and is working with music teachers at local schools to explore the possibility of providing music software and virtual lessons through Google Classroom.

McGlone said in her mind, the primary way Penn can support Philadelphia schools is by providing resources that schools might not have access to otherwise, like by purchasing ukuleles for students to use at home.

“I think we learn a lot from being in the schools more than students learn from us,” McGlone said. “I think that sometimes we can be a burden on the teachers or a burden on the school, so one thing I worked really hard to do is maintain relationships with teachers and figure out what we can do that would be beneficial.”