Every student in Pennsylvania is entitled to repeat a grade to make up for learning losses from COVID-19, but families who wish to exercise this right must act quickly.
A law signed by Governor Tom Wolf last week gives parents until July 15 to notify schools of their intention to keep their children. The new law, known as Law 66, also gives disabled students who turned 21 in the 2020/21 school year the option to stay for an additional year.
Pennsylvania is one of several states in the United States that have enacted such laws.
The pandemic has disrupted learning for public schools across Pennsylvania; In most districts, children practically attended school for most of the year. Some children, such as ten- to twelve-year students in Philadelphia and students in the Southeast Delco School District, never enter a classroom.
Educators have done their best to adapt, but there will be gaps in the fall, say experts, who also generally agree that schools should only keep students on rare occasions.
Philadelphia’s parents’ son Heidi Allen fits that bill, she said. The multi-handicapped boy was a kindergarten in the Philadelphia School District last school year. It was a struggle to get him to sit for an online school, let alone keep supplies in a crucial school year.
“Virtual just didn’t work, he didn’t really have a kindergarten year – he lost a year of school,” said Allen. “It’s nobody’s fault, but it happened, and my kid won’t be the kid that makes two years out of a year.”
The law, Allen said, was a godsend for her family and others.
“That could really help a lot of people,” she says.
Timing is tough – families only have a week to make the decision and many don’t know the possibility is there. Lawyers are trying to get the word out and answer questions from people trying to keep up with the new law, said Margie Wakelin, an attorney at Education Law Center.
“The concern is almost furious,” said Wakelin of the tight turnaround and long-term effects.
In many cases, children are eligible for assistance aimed at soliciting them, which is paid for with billions of federal COVID-19 aid funds, but withholding is also an option.
“Whether or not student retention is the right option for students to cope with the loss of educational opportunities over the past year is a bigger question, and we really caution families to think about it,” said Wakelin.
Syrita Powers from West Philadelphia is thinking hard. Your three girls all have special needs and have struggled to varying degrees with a primarily virtual Philadelphia school district year, but the calculation is different for each of them.
Madison, who has just finished sixth grade, is moving into seventh as planned.
“She said, ‘Please don’t hold me back,'” Powers said. “It would be negative for you.”
Georgia, a fourth grader who is nonverbal, will definitely repeat.
“Is she really prepared with the skills to go into the middle school building when she lost almost a year and a half of school? I feel like we’re going to throw them into a storm and it makes sense to hold them back, ”Powers said.
Powers and her husband have yet to decide what is best for Logan, their youngest who has just finished second grade. She lost her skills but “I think she can catch up a little easier,” said Powers.
For now, Powers plans to file the retention form for Logan, even if she changes her mind before school starts. Proponents say the right of retention is a good plan for parents who are still unsure of what to do.
Kimberly Caputo, an attorney who represents families in special education cases, fears that little information will be disseminated about the law, particularly about the rule that gives older students with disabilities an extra year of schooling.
“This is such a fragile, needy cohort,” said Caputo. “Another year learning how to power your power chair is a really valuable year. Another year to get three more sets on your communication device is a really valuable year. “
Anna Perng, co-founder of the Chinatown Disability Advocacy Project, goes out of her way to educate families about their options. Many schools and districts have not yet informed families about the law and their rights.
“Ninety-nine percent of the families in Philadelphia won’t know about this,” Perng said. “Many students could benefit from this new law, not just students with disabilities.”
Philadelphia school district officials did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
Families new to the US faced challenges as they struggled to navigate an unfamiliar school system and find new online platforms with no personal access to staff who spoke their language.
“There are students who just haven’t logged in all year and haven’t had reliable internet, and I and other proponents care to pass them on without making sure they have the skills and knowledge they need to move on . “Said Perng.
Parents who want to keep their children or who want 21-year-olds with disabilities to attend school for an extra year must submit the form on the state website to their child’s school, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
If parents miss the deadline, the state says it is up to the school or county to determine what next steps to take.