Limited reopening announced for public schools

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said the school system will halt in-person classes if it becomes unsafe.
PHOTO: CHARLES MOSTOLLER

Public schools in Philadelphia will begin reopening for in-person classes next month with a slow, phased-in approach that will prioritize younger students, officials announced Wednesday.

About 33,000 children in Pre-K through 2nd grade will be eligible to return to school buildings for two days a week starting Nov. 30, according to the School District of Philadelphia’s plan.

It will be the first face-to-face classes in city public schools in more than eight months, since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Students with disabilities in all grades will be allowed into classrooms in January, and the plan is for 9th grade and career and technical education students to come back in late January or early February, officials said.

There is no timetable for the return of other grade levels.

All aspects of the plan are subject to guidance from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, and families will have the opportunity to enroll students in a 100% digital program.

“Those of us in education truly believe children learn best when they are in a classroom with a great teacher,” Superintendent William Hite said during a virtual press briefing.

Jerry Jordan, who leads the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, a labor union, expressed concerns with the plan but did not dismiss it.

In an email to members Tuesday evening, he said the PFT had not viewed a single report indicating that a school building was cleared to be reopened. Teachers and other staff have raised concerns about poor ventilation.

“First and foremost, any reopening plan will be contingent upon health and safety. Period,” Jordan said in a statement Wednesday. “Any efforts to reopen school buildings without meeting a stringent set of safety criteria will not pass muster, and will be unacceptable.”

In July, district leaders delayed a partial resumption of in-person instruction after an outcry from teachers, principals and some parents.

Hite said the district is working to compile ventilation reports and will present updated numbers at a Board of Education meeting next week.

“This plan is making sure that we can return children and staff members safely to schools, and we will not return them if, in fact, it’s not safe for students and staff,” he said. “Even after we return, we will not remain in schools if it’s not safe for students and staff.”

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley has indicated that he believes schools can proceed with in-person classes. There has been no “clear evidence” of coronavirus spread inside school facilities, he said Tuesday.

The PFT’s contract expired at the end of August, and Hite said district negotiators continue to work with the union to hammer out an agreement.

In most elementary schools, pre-K to 2nd grade students will be split into “A” and “B” groups, with one group coming for in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays and the other on Thursdays and Fridays.

Wednesdays will serve as an online-only day for all students, officials said. There will also be multiple chances a week for all children to receive small group instruction.

School buildings that do not have enough space to implement social distancing may have to adopt different schedules, officials said.

“This is a general idea of our model,” said Malika Savoy-Brooks, the district’s chief of academic support. “This will also be contingent upon grade.”

Students who do not enroll in the hybrid learning model during a five-day selection process will remain online-only, according to the district.

All students will be required to wear masks, and Hite said he is hoping schools will be able to offer COVID-19 testing for pupils who have symptoms.

The district is spending $6 million to equip classrooms with cameras and other supplies to live-stream lessons for students who are on their online learning day and those who opt for the 100% remote experience.

Parochial and Archdiocese of Philadelphia schools, which opened for in-person instruction last month, have implemented similar technology.

Savoy-Brooks said 9th grade students were selected as a group to return early because that is the point where teenagers are most likely to drop out of high school.

For CTE students, some classes require hands-on instruction so they can be certified in trades, such as welding, officials said.

Parents have expressed interest in having their children remain with their current teachers, but Evelyn Nunez, the district’s chief of schools, said it may depend on how many educators apply to continue teaching at home.

Of the system’s 9,000 teachers, about 300 have requested to work remotely because they have medical conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, according to the district.

Staff who deal directly with pre-K-2 students will be required to report to work Nov. 9, Hite said in an email to teachers Tuesday.

Nunez said the district will spend the next couple of weeks alerting families of the plan and asking them to consider their options. An enrollment period will open Oct. 29 and run through 5 p.m. on Oct. 30.

Officials said the district’s spending commitments related to COVID-19 and school reopening stand at around $70 million.

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