What lies ahead for reopening in-person learning in Philadelphia schools?
Schools in the city are now set to reopen for limited in-person learning on March 1.
In what was an hours-long hearing held by Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Children and Youth and Education, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite said administrators, parents and elected officials all want “the same thing” when it comes to educating the city’s youth amid COVID-19.
Since the initial announcement of the school district’s intention to reopen for in-person learning on Feb. 8, it’s faced constant backlash from parents, teachers and local elected officials over safety concerns and murky plans for how to curb the spread of COVID-19 in school buildings.
The protests have had the school district backpedaling, as teachers were no longer required to return in person on Feb. 8 and an announcement came on Feb. 17 that the start of in-person learning would be delayed from Feb. 22 to March 1 over a further dispute with the teacher’s union.
“We have a great deal of work to do together on issues like how we address outstanding concerns about some of our buildings, or how we rebuild the community’s trust in the District to deliver a thorough education in a safe and healthy learning environment,” said Hite in the City Council committee meeting.
His plan to reopen for in-person learning was to bring back approximately 9,000 students in pre-K through second grade for two days a week.
At the City Council meeting, Hite reiterated his support for reopening in-person learning as soon as possible, saying that too many students are falling behind in the virtual learning environment.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in the service of our children, it is time to start working together to return them safely to the classroom,” he said.
Despite Hite’s persistent call for returning, a number of teachers, parents and other school employees that spoke at the meeting also maintained their own ground for staying virtual until it’s safe.
“Do no harm should be the top priority for school reopening,” said Brandy Stewart, president of the Home and School Association at Samuel Powel Elementary School.
She also has a niece that attends the school in second grade and believes she should remain virtual until proper safety measures are in place and a plan exists to cope with the mental health effects of the pandemic on students.
Stewart’s concerns about safety from COVID-19 were shared by longtime Philadelphia teacher Regina Feighan-Drach, who urged that no instructors should return to in-person school until they and all other staff members are vaccinated.
“I believe putting anyone at risk is too much,” she said.
In response to questions raised at the committee meeting, Hite did reveal school district plans to partner with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to conduct weekly COVID-19 tests of teachers, 20% of the initial returning student body, and those who are deemed “high-risk.”
They also announced an initial round of 10,000 COVID-19 vaccination appointments for school staff starting on Feb. 22. Childcare and education providers are within phase 1b of the city’s vaccine rollout plan.
On hand at the meeting was also CHOP’s Director of its Policy Lab David Rubin, who said safe reopening of in-person schools could, and has been done around the country. But strict guidelines are required.
“We have collected, reviewed, and followed the increasing evidence that multi-layered school safety plans — rooted in universal masking, distancing of students, good hygiene practices, and strict sick policies — can significantly minimize the likelihood of transmission occurring during the school day,” he said.
Right now, the school district is sticking with its March 1 reopening date.