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The School District of Philadelphia has faced heavy scrutiny for how it's gone about taking some schools virtual in the first week of 2022. Photo: Getty Images

School District of Philadelphia charts fluid path forward against Omicron

Ninety-two schools in the district are virtual because of staffing shortages, and while in-person learning is the goal, the way there still has some turns.

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Philadelphia schools took the atypical approach of announcing a full day in advance that it would go virtual Friday, Jan. 7, as the area was expected to receive one to three inches of snow overnight.

This decision comes as the Policy Lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) released new k-12 guidelines this week stating that calls for in-person classes during the current surge of COVID-19 infections has led to staff shortages across the district. 

The new guidance advised students and staff who test positive to be allowed to return five days after symptoms occur, as long as their symptoms disappear or are resolving, rather than the prior 10-day isolation guidance. Universal masking will remain in place, but testing of asymptomatic students will end. 

School officials have faced major criticism for not going remote due to growing infections and staff shortages. Since Monday, 92 schools in the district have gone virtual.

The school district told Chalkbeat Philadelphia that Friday’s closure was temporary and due to inclement weather and that it has no plans to extend remote learning. 

“The decision was not made because of COVID-related matters. The district will, as we have stated the last two days, continue to provide updates daily about the need to implement virtual learning for schools experiencing COVID-related staffing issues,” said district spokesperson Monica Lewis.

Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) expressed concern and disappointment over CHOP’s new guidance. 

While they appreciate the continued masking regardless of vaccination status, teachers are concerned about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Recent research shows that the use of a high-quality (approved KF94, KN95, or N95) mask — or at the very least, a double mask of combined surgical/cloth variety is absolutely essential; and in fact, PDPH recommends this approach. But the reality is that these resources are not provided to schools,” Jerry Jordan, president PFT.

By Wednesday, Jan. 5, the city was recording over 3,000 cases per day, up 200 from November. And though the number of children between the ages of five to 11 who have received one vaccination shot has increased, there’s still concern about access to the shots. 

It’s why Councilmember Helen Gym is asking the district to bring vaccination clinics to every school, increase access to PPE, expand testing and invest in expanding support for school nurses. 

“It is not enough to say we want schools to open. We must deliver a plan to guarantee that schools can stay open. What we saw this week was as much a crisis of confidence in our leadership as it was a crisis of public health,” Gym said in a statement on Thursday. 

Despite the drastic rise in cases, Superintendent William Hite has reaffirmed the district’s stance that in-person learning is best for students, citing the “nearly two years of trauma” students faced due to the pandemic.

The PFT said that massive staffing shortages caused by COVID cases or exposure have made it nearly impossible to function and have affected every part of a school’s operation, from lunchroom staff to administrators. 

“A temporary pause on in-person learning in order to plan for appropriate mitigation strategies would significantly shorten the likely length of time schools need to be virtual. Instead, we are wasting critical time while cases continue to skyrocket,” Jordan said.

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