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Despite virus case surge, schools should reopen for youngest students, Philadelphia health chief says

The school board will hear about the plan Thursday.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley.

City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Tuesday that he thinks it is safe to reopen schools for the youngest students next month.

Emma Lee / WHYY

City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Tuesday that he thinks it is safe to reopen schools for the youngest students next month despite a continued rise in COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia.

Based on the experiences of about 50 private, Catholic, and charter schools that have conducted some in-person learning for the past seven weeks, Farley said, there is very little evidence of spread within school buildings.

While 44 sites “have seen cases of either students or staff” testing positive, they have been “mostly isolated cases … with no evidence of spread within the facility,” Farley said at a press briefing. In 26 of these situations, the city recommended quarantines that were followed.

The exception has been at the private Philadelphia School, where so far there have been 15 cases in a “cluster” and where information indicates it was due to classroom spread. “This is the only situation where we think this has occurred,” Farley said, adding that he thinks this was attributable to a one-time “slip in [safety] technique.” 

Superintendent William Hite last week outlined a plan to open school buildings to approximately 30,000 students from -pre-kindergarten through second grade. At tomorrow’s meeting, the Board of Education will hear about the plan, but does not plan to take a new vote, according to board spokeswoman Janice Hatfield.

Hatfield said that the Board on July 30 approved a general coronavirus health and safety plan in July that is required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “Since then the board has been monitoring the progress of the plan and is committed to opening school buildings only when it is safe to do so,” she said.

Under Hite’s latest plan, teachers and staff are scheduled to re-enter school buildings on Nov. 9 to prepare for the return of the approximately 30,000 students on Nov. 30.

Students will be split into two groups, with one attending school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other on Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays being virtual for all. The students will be kept in their own cohorts to minimize their contacts, and the district is promising strict social distancing and other precautions.

Parents will still have the option of keeping students at home for all-virtual learning, and the district has invested $6 million in technology so that teacher lessons can be streamed to those students. Parents are being asked to make that decision between Oct. 26-30.

At the briefing, Farley detailed the rise in cases in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and neighboring New Jersey. Philadelphia had 268 new cases on Monday, and the past week’s average of nearly 200 cases a day is the highest it has been since mid-May, he said.

“We may be entering a dangerous period with this virus,” Farley said.

Still, he added, “It is important for children to be in school” for their short-term and long-term mental health.

“Having talked to some people whose children have been back in school, they say that their children’s mental health has brightened up tremendously,” he said.  “We also have a lot of other health problems in this city right on up to homicides, and having children not in school, having teenagers not in school, doesn’t help those other problems.”

Hite’s plan calls for some older students – ninth graders and those in career and technical education programs with minimums of hands-on hours required for certification – to go back in January. But he has also left open the possibility that third through eighth graders and 10th graders through 12th graders may not return to in-person learning at all this school year.

“I think it is important for us to try to make it work in schools … and I think that if they are really vigilant about safety measures, they can do so safely,” Farley said.

One particular area of concern has been whether the schools can be properly ventilated. All buildings are being checked for safe “air balancing,” Hite has said, but so far the district has only been sharing how many schools have been evaluated, not the details of the reports. Hite promised that the reports, including safe capacity levels for each school building, would be available this week – presumably before the board is scheduled to vote. At a committee meeting on Oct. 15, several board members also shared their concerns about ventilation. 

Hite had originally planned to open schools for some in-person learning in September, which Farley had also said would be safe. But he retreated from that plan after an outcry against it at the July school board meeting.

Correction: The Board of Education will hear a presentation on returning to in-person learning at its Thursday meeting. A previous version of this story said the Board of Education would vote on a re-opening plan.

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