High schoolers face catalog of issues, as lower grades are prioritized for return to classrooms

A Philadelphia school superintendent discusses the struggles students have faced with remote learning and how it has affected their education. CNN's Bianna Golodryga reports.

Posted: Mar 23, 2021 10:21 AM
Updated: Mar 23, 2021 10:21 AM

High school held such a promise for Ja-Lin Guzman -- an escape from the crime-riddled streets of north Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood that she says made her "grow up fast."

"I felt like high school was our chance to still have our childhood and to be kids and to run around and play sports and do theater and sing and dance," the diminutive senior told CNN.

"Now we don't have that," she adds, a full year of her classroom life already stolen by the coronavirus pandemic.

While Philadelphia is engineering a return to school for younger students -- in common with districts around the country prioritizing elementary-grade children -- there is no date yet for when Guzman and her friends may go back.

So instead of attending football games or planning for senior prom, she's planning breakfast and lunch for her younger siblings and still trying to do her work.

"It's hard because, as the older kids in the household, we're in school and trying to help our siblings in school, and trying to provide while our parents are at work," Guzman said.

Remote learning has also been difficult for Dena Stiles-Lawson and Angelica Lov Speech, fellow students at the Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School. Lov Speech, a sophomore, says each day feels like a repeat of the previous one.

"The school life and the just everyday home life is blurred and I feel like I'm always in school," she said.

Stiles-Lawson, also a sophomore, is struggling with online theater classes.

"It takes what makes acting fun out of it. Usually, when you're sitting there on stage physically, it's just something about it that makes it a lot more enjoyable. But ever since we were online, it's just not the same anymore."

The teens are old enough to realize the toll of the lost year.

Guzman shares that "my mental health hasn't been good," and Lov Speech chimes in that she now has a therapist.

Focus on preteens

After months of back and forth between the school district and the teachers' union, Philadelphia reopened its elementary schools to students a couple of weeks ago with a hybrid approach that still has children learning virtually at least three days a week. It's a more cautious approach than adopted in other large cities such as New York, Miami and Houston, which are offering in-person learning five days a week to more ages.

William Hite, superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, said he still supported the hybrid timetable with Wednesdays set aside for deep-cleaning, as a way to ensure safety and build trust.

Some families seemed hesitant to send children back, with less than one-third of eligible students in pre-K to 2nd grade being signed up for the first groups to have hybrid schooling.

And Hite remains especially concerned about the city's youngest students, with recent analysis of testing data showing a drop of 15 percentiles in reading comprehension for the city's kindergarten and first grade students.

"The regression has occurred, it is real," Hite said. "For young people, many young people who are already struggling, they have been disproportionately impacted."

When asked about the expansion of in-person learning in the coming weeks and what his realistic goal was for classrooms by the end of the year, Hite said he wanted "to get as many children in as possible."

When pressed as to whether all grades could return, he said, "If we get up to middle school, that would be success for us. But if we get to 12th grade, that's even more success."

Hite said he was well aware of the sacrifices being made by high schoolers.

"I want to thank them for their resilience and their persistence and dealing with a tough set of circumstances. And I want them to understand that this is not going to be forever."

The three Kensington students say they are nervous about returning to the classroom, whenever that may be, and want to make sure it's safe.

But even the thought of what going back to school would be like made Stiles-Lawson's face light up.

"It would be euphoric," she said. "I don't even know how to explain how much I miss my friends."

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