Children attending public schools in Philadelphia will be returning to in-person classes next month, for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began in March.
At least that’s the plan School District of Philadelphia leaders rolled out on Wednesday. It would have some pre-K-to-2nd grade students come into school buildings twice a week, on an “AA/BB” schedule, with the remaining three days reserved for virtual learning.
It’s the district’s third attempt at bringing back in-person instruction, and questions remain about how the plan will be received by teachers.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents educators, has said it doesn’t believe its members should be required to report to work until they are vaccinated. Union leaders also raised concerns about COVID-19 case rates and ventilation.
“Our members desperately want to teach their students face to face,” the PFT said in a statement. “But they will continue to work as hard as possible to provide for their students in a remote environment.”
Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday that vaccinating teachers could be “weeks” away, as other groups, such as people 75 and older, take priority.
City officials are in negotiations with a local university to inoculate educators, and Superintendent William Hite said his team is in talks with a hospital system to find a vaccination site for school employees.
Hite has repeatedly said that reopening is not contingent on vaccinations, and, on Wednesday, he said having to immunize all teachers could jeopardize plans to have any in-person learning this school year.
In addition, the district will not and cannot mandate that employees receive the injection, though it will advocate for teachers to receive higher priority, he added.
Under the district’s plan, about 9,000 employees, including 2,000 teachers, will be told to report to schools in 12 days to begin preparing.
Teachers’ unions across the country have battled school systems over safety measures, most visibly in Chicago, where teachers have threatened to stop working altogether, according to Reuters.
Last year, the district and PFT signed a memorandum of agreement relating to the reopening process, and the union believes some standards set in the document haven’t been met.
Superintendent William Hite, speaking at a virtual press briefing, brought up the MOA and suggested the district’s plan was in line with the agreement.
“We are still focused intently on that memorandum of agreement, and we continue to meet regularly with all of our union leadership, including those from the PFT,” Hite said.
Teachers have the ability to apply for accommodation, which will allow them to continue working remotely on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Hite said the district is confident in its COVID-19 safety protocols, and he stated that school leaders have an “obligation” to begin in-person instruction.
“We know that children, especially our youngest learners and those with complex needs, learn best in person,” he said. “We also know that being out of school buildings has not been easy for far too many of our students and our families.”
About 9,000 students whose families signed up to participate in the hybrid model in November will be eligible to go back next month. Officials originally intended to bring back students that month but scrapped the plan amid growing case counts.
Parents can drop out of in-person instruction at any time, though those who opted to remain 100% virtual in the fall won’t be able to enroll in the hybrid program until the district decides to boost capacity.
Following the return of pre-K-to-2nd grade, the district plans to bring back English language learners and students with disabilities. The third group would be career and technical education students.
While Hite didn’t have a definitive timeline for those categories, he said he hopes it will be “closer to March than April.”
Parents will be asked to pre-screen their children for symptoms before school, and staff will have to fill out a daily questionnaire.
Masks must be worn, and students will be spaced 6 feet apart in the classroom. For small group work, plexiglass barriers will separate teachers and students, officials said.
Hite said rapid tests will be administered to children who have symptoms. If a result comes back positive, they will be sent to a designated room to wait to be picked up.
A percentage of students and staff will be tested to identify asymptomatic cases, according to Hite.
“COVID will come to the schools,” said Gail Carter-Hamilton, of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
Carter-Hamilton said spread within school buildings has been “very limited.” Out of the 200 private and charter schools that have reopened in the city, only 19 have experienced outbreaks, she added.
District leaders said they will be working with the health department in deciding when to quarantine a classroom, school or even the entire district.