ABOVE PHOTOS: Dr. Toni Damon, Principal of Murrell Dobbins High School and Dr. Robin Cooper, President of Teamsters Local 502
By Thera Martin
The spring semester of 2020 for Philadelphia’s public school students was a bit touch and go. So many young people never experienced online instruction.
Now that the fall semester is upon us, school districts sound more prepared for how to juggle this big change in academic learning. Many children across the nation will learn from home, by way of the internet.
Dr. Robin Cooper, President of Teamsters Local 502, Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, (CASA), says the pandemic has been a game-changer for education.
“I’m glad that school district officials reverted their initial plan for the reopening of the school year with in-person learning,” Cooper said. “Changing their minds, we feel, is the best thing. We just don’t know what will happen next with COVID-19. We’re hoping we won’t have to be virtual all year long, but what we are saying is, let’s be virtual until we can figure out the safest plan for our children to reenter physical school buildings.”
While Dobbins High School has 1,100 enrolled students for this fall, Northeast High School has 4,000 enrolled students, just to give an idea of what some school administrators and teachers are facing.
“Learning online is a major undertaking for the school district, however we can meet the challenge,” Cooper said. “This virtual learning is something that most of the country hasn’t done in grade schools, junior high and high schools, all together. With everybody trying to access the same online systems, we’re bound to have some glitches.”
COVID-19 has brought all of this on, and educators are working as best they can, to get over some of the obstacles,” Cooper continued. “Flexibility is the key word right now, for learning. If you’re trying to do learning the way we’ve always done it, in the traditional sense, you just can’t. We need to understand that we have to make changes and we have to be progressive enough to figure out how to do it.”
Cooper wanted to share words of encouragement with school principals around the city. “If you know anything about Philadelphia school administrators, they are resilient,” Cooper said. “I would say be very flexible, and don’t beat up on yourself when things go wrong, because a lot of this is new to all of us. I would also advise my principals to take some time for yourselves whenever you can.”
“With virtual learning, you’re doing Zoom in a lot of cases until 8:00 or 9:00, 10 o’clock at night,” she continued. “After you finish teaching every day, then there’s Zoom staff meetings. There are meetings with your supervisors. There’s professional development workshops, all online. At some point you have to be able to separate your work, from your personal life, even while working from home. Principals put a lot of time and energy into making these virtual classrooms work, and we’re doing so with limited support. Make sure you take some time for yourself so that you don’t burn out.”
“This is a difficult challenge,” Dr. Toni Damon, Principal of Murrell Dobbins High School, said. “Just like the leaders we are, we are rising to the occasion. We’re doing everything that we can to make sure that our students do not miss a beat with their instruction. We’re using all the core technologies to make sure that our young people are getting what they need. We’ve been training teachers. The school district has provided professional development. We’re learning how to do smart learning online, where you can engage students.”
“There is so much more than I had ever dreamed that I would be doing at this point in my career,” Damon continued. “But nonetheless, I’m blessed to be a part of this experience. This fall we have 1,100 students who are enrolled at Dobbins. It’s a lot, and it’s going to be a challenge to try and have a personal touch, but we’re going to make every effort to ensure that we do that.”
“This year for example, our teachers are starting a program called Accountability Buddy,” she said [The] Accountability Buddy [program]is teachers taking on two to three students to be their mentor. We have to make certain that these young people feel that there’s someone here for them.”
The School District of Philadelphia will utilize the Google Classroom program, as well as Zoom and, Smart Learning Online, a platform where teachers can really engage with the students.
Another piece of technology that teachers are really excited about this school year is something called “Bitmoji” classroom and office space. It’s a way where teachers can create a little office or classroom online. They make a Bitmoji of themselves which can show a little of their personality to let the students know who they are as a person and their style. It’s a virtual classroom.
“We have been working very hard since last spring to figure out which students do, or do not have technology at home,” Damon said. “In my opinion, what the city of Philadelphia, Comcast and other businesses are doing to help get technology into low income students’ homes who don’t have it is a welcome addition.”
The last thing that Dr. Damon shared was that we really need our parents to understand that we’re going back to a full day of school.
“Even though it’s online, we start on September 2,”she said. “Parents need to check with their child’s school website to see what the bell schedule is. At Dobbins, our school day starts at 7:30 a.m. All students are expected to be online, via video, starting at 7:30 a.m. The school day at Dobbins will run until 2:34 p.m.”.
Parents, check in with your child’s school so you know what time they are expected to start their school day. Times may vary at different schools.