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Philadelphia leaders not sure when most district students might return for in-person learning

Exterior of the School District of Philadelphia building.

Outside School District of Philadelphia headquarters.

Emma Lee / WHYY

In announcing plans for a phased reopening of the city’s schools, Philadelphia district leaders could not say when the majority of students might be able to start some in-person learning.

District leaders plan to bring back students in pre-kindergarten to second grade in two cohorts of two days a week each starting Nov. 30. Students with special needs, ninth graders, and students in career and technical education can return in January for similar part-time in-person learning. But the rest — students in grades three through eight and 10th to 12th — have no tentative start date for hybrid learning. 

“We don’t know. That’s a big unknown here,” Superintendent William Hite said Wednesday during a press conference.

Reopening school buildings to all students will depend on the spread of the virus and the guidance of city and other health officials, he said. All families will have the option to choose fully remote learning. The window for making that decision will be Oct. 26 to Oct. 30. 

Those who choose all virtual at that time will not be able to change their minds until the second quarter ends on Jan. 27.

Hite and other officials said safety will guide future decisions, but said all-virtual learning does the most damage to the city’s neediest students.

“We have witnessed the absence of in-person learning has disproportionately affected our most vulnerable children, which are low income and minority students,” said Evelyn Nunez, the district’s chief of academics. She added: “The plan is making sure we can return children and staff safely to schools.”

Hite said the unions representing the district’s educators had been closely involved in developing the phased-in reopening plan.  Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president  Jerry Jordan issued a statement saying that it is important that in-person learning resume, but questioned whether the buildings will be safe by the scheduled return of about 30,000 pre-kindergarten through second grade students.

“We have yet to see any evidence that schools will be ready to open in any capacity on the proposed dates, but we also recognize that the goal is, of course, for students to return to in-person learning,” Jordan said. “Virtual learning is far from ideal for any learner or educator. But lives are at stake.” 

“First and foremost, any reopening plan will be contingent upon health and safety. Period,” the statement said.

Hite and other officials stressed that plans are flexible depending on the advice of city health officials and advisers the district has been consulting, including some at Children’s Hospital. The entire district or individual schools could close if there is evidence of spreading the virus, he said. 

The district had planned to start the school year with a hybrid plan, and had the approval of health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, but pulled back after a public outcry at the July board of education meeting.

The board will vote on this plan at its action meeting Oct. 22.

In an interview, Jordan said that members of his team did participate in several meetings with the district and gave input on the reopening plan, but they were not part of the final decision on when to start the hybrid model and for which students.

However, he said he agreed with the focus on the youngest learners.

“It certainly makes sense for all the children not to go back at the same time, and for the youngest children to go back,” he said. “If you are going to teach reading to a child, doing it virtually is a mission impossible.”

Hite said that the district would have more specific information next week on the degree of learning loss for students.

But academics, he said, “is only a part of it. Socialization aspects are really important for the youngest learners and establishing relationships with teachers.” Kindergarten students, he noted, “have started school, but have not had the opportunity to be in person yet. These are critically important years … we want to make sure they are returning to some form of normalcy.”

Hite said he hopes that kindergarten registration, which has been way down, will see an uptick once the children have the opportunity for some in-person learning.

Teachers and other staff associated with pre-kindergarten through second grade will return on Nov. 9 to prepare their classrooms and become familiar with the new requirements.

Under the hybrid model, the students will be split into two groups, A and B, with the A group attending on Monday and Tuesday each week, and the B group on Thursday and Friday.  Wednesday will be all virtual.  

Hite said the district prioritized students in ninth grade because they are “the most vulnerable to dropping out” and students in career and technical programs because they need to accumulate a certain number of hands-on hours to sit for national certification exams.

Jordan said the PFT has signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the district on the conditions that must be met before teachers enter school buildings. They include enforcement of social distancing requirements, the provision of personal protective equipment, or PPE, the availability of hand sanitizer, plans for frequent handwashing by children and staff, installation of plexiglass barriers in each school’s central office, and proper signage.

According to the MOU, the district must provide each teacher with five masks.

One of the biggest safety concerns centers on ventilation, and whether air flow in school buildings – which are 75 years old on average – will be good enough to hamper the spread of the airborne virus.

Under the MOU with the union, the district also must provide airflow quality reports for each school, Jordan said. The district had originally promised them by Oct. 9. But so far, the district has only been reporting on how many schools have been evaluated, not on the results of the evaluations.

 Hite said this information would be available next week.

“What the reports will produce are some specificity on how many people can be in that space given the fresh air in that space,” Hite said. “We’re going to actually adjust those reports so they provide a lot more information in terms of what we’re measuring … We’re going to amend some of that to make sure that is clear.”

Jordan said that his team are waiting for those reports and plan to personally inspect as many buildings as they can before Nov. 9. In addition, PFT building representatives in each school are being made aware of “what should be present in their buildings and the system we put in place. If hand sanitizer is not there, there is a protocol.”  

Robin Cooper, principal of the principals’ union, the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators said she wants to see a “checklist” for deep cleansing and ventilation.

“This would put everybody at ease ... we are trusting that the school district is doing its due diligence to return students in a responsible way.”

Hite said it is still being determined whether students and staff will be tested for COVID-19 before being allowed inside buildings.

The district has spent $70 million on unanticipated expenses related to the virus and reopening, said chief financial officer Uri Monson. Those expenditures include Chromebooks for every student, PPE and signage, hiring additional teachers, costs relating to  social distancing in buildings and on school buses, Monson said. He added that he hoped to have a more specific accounting by mid-November.

The district did receive $116 million in federal coronavirus  funding in the wake of the pandemic and another $7.75 million in a state coronavirus grant.

How many families will decide to stay all virtual – and how that will impact the logistics of reopening and the assignment of teachers – is still unknown. In New York City, about half the families chose to stay all remote, with much higher percentages in some neighborhoods.

The district’s plan makes it clear that “to the extent possible” students will be able to keep their current teacher, whether virtual or not. The district has spent $6 milllion on cameras and microphones so teachers’ lessons will be livestreamed to the students who are not in the classroom on that day.

Of the district’s 9,000 or so teachers, about 300 of them have asked to continue working remotely because of either their own health or that of family members.

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