School district prepares for reopening as virus surges

Philadelphia schools superintendent William Hite said on Thursday that the district will not return to in-person instruction unless it’s safe for students and staff.
Metro File Photo

School District of Philadelphia leaders said Thursday that they continue to prepare for a limited reopening in November, even as COVID-19 case rates hit levels not seen in months.

Pre-K to second grade students can return to classrooms two days a week starting Nov. 30, if their families sign up by Friday.

Superintendent William Hite on a call with reporters reiterated that the district will not return to in-person instruction unless it’s safe for students and staff. He said officials are in constant contact with health experts.

“We are aware that cases are rising here in the city,” he added. “We’re preparing for all scenarios. A scenario that will allow us to bring some children back. Scenarios that will result in all children remaining virtual.”

Philadelphia recently surpassed a benchmark set by the Pennsylvania Department of Education as guidance for when school systems should remain or switch to 100% digital models. That threshold is 100 cases per 100,000 residents over a 7-day period.

Hite and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley have noted that the city has not reached the state’s other threshold, a positive case rate of 10%, though the department’s guidelines indicate that hitting either metric is grounds for going virtual.

The state Department of Education lists Philadelphia’s community spread as “substantial,” meaning in-person learning is not recommended.

A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said the union is “very, very concerned” about rising cases in the area.

“Under these circumstances, and without a rapid and immediate decline, it will be impossible to open schools in any capacity on November 9th,” the date some teachers have been told to report to schools, she said in an email.

Farley said Tuesday that the city is not recommending schools already offering in-person instruction shift to an entirely online model.

Some schools, including those run by Catholic parishes, have brought back students. So far, only one, the private Philadelphia School in Center City, has had an outbreak that appears to have spread in the classroom, Farley said.

PFT leaders have also raised concerns about poor ventilation within buildings.

A district-run online dashboard shows that 53% of schools have been examined by contractors who have been testing airflow and calculating capacities for each classroom.

Two-thirds of those rooms in elementary schools that have been inspected aren’t equipped to safely hold 15 people or more, and 20% of schools didn’t have a single room that could handle a class that size, according to a WHYY/Chalkbeat analysis.

It’s not a major concern, Hite said, because only a fraction of public school students will be returning to buildings next month.

“We’re bringing back small cohorts of young people, and based on that, we will use rooms that have been cleared,” he said.

About 33,000 children will be eligible to return in the first phase of the district’s reopening plan, which was unveiled earlier this month.

In most cases, they 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.

Parents who decide to send their children back for in-person classes can pull them out at any time, but those who opt to continue learning at home won’t be able to enter the hybrid model until January.

Families have until 5 p.m. Friday to make a decision. If they don’t contact the school system, they will be defaulted to an online-only model.

People can enroll their children in the hybrid plan by filling out an email they received from the district or calling their student’s school. Pre-K families can also call 215-400-6087.

Just over 40% of eligible students have submitted a response, and Melanie Harris, the district’s chief information officer, said there’s roughly a “60-40 split” in favor of the hybrid model. Not all of the data has been analyzed, she said.

Officials have said 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.

The district has not released a time table for the return of other grade levels.

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