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Philadelphia superintendent confident some in-person school will resume this year

Philadelphia superintendent William Hite in a discussion with other school officials.
Philadelphia superintendent William Hite.
Emma Lee/WHYY

Superintendent William Hite said Wednesday that he was confident some in-person schooling would resume in Philadelphia before the end of this academic year, but he could not say where, when, or for which students.

“I do predict schools will be in some form of in-person this school year,” Hite said at his weekly press briefing. “I can’t say with certainty what grades will be included, but I can say with a great deal of confidence that there will be some schools that will be serving children.”

Hite said his confidence is based on the district and city’s ability to test staff and students for the coronavirus. It is not contingent on teachers getting vaccinated.

While Mayor Jim Kenney and city health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Tuesday that teachers would be in the second tier of workers in line for vaccination, they gave no timetable.

“There are so many individuals in the first tier, it is unlikely we can move educators up,” Hite said. Officials haven’t gotten to the point where they are discussing the logistics of teacher vaccinations.

Plans for testing students and staff for a return to in-person schooling are moving forward, Hite said.

Hite noted that some Catholic schools are already open, with school nurses working there who are provided by the district. The coronavirus testing will be rolled out in those places to establish the “routine.” Frequency of testing, he said, will be “based on broader data, data around cases in the communities, and if in fact we need to do more testing in communities that are seeing a spike of cases, we will have the ability to do that, both with adults and with children.”

“We will have testing in place, we will be able to quickly analyze where we have cases rising or not,” he said. “I’m also confident, in fact, that in the very early ages we’re not seeing the transmission [of the virus] like we’re seeing with many of the adults. And I’m confident in how schools have been prepared in order to provide some form of in-person instruction in a way that’s safe for both students and for faculty.”

The district has spent millions on safety measures including plexiglass barriers, social-distancing signs, ventilation testing and upgrades, and deep cleaning — although many parents and teachers continue to believe that ventilation, based on the testing, shows that the buildings are not yet safe.

Twice the district planned for a form of hybrid learning — for the beginning of the school year and then at the end of last month. Both times, plans were scuttled after public outcry and a spike in cases. Under the plans, students in pre-kindergarten through second grade would have attended in alternating groups for two days a week, learning remotely on the other three days. The district spent $11 million on cameras so teachers could simultaneously teach students in classrooms and remotely.

A lot of the work in school buildings was done with federal coronavirus relief money, but overall, between revenue declines and added expenses, the district’s budget outlook has worsened.

The likelihood with resuming in-person school, Hite said, is that “some [schools] may open, and then close, and then reopen, but we will have the ability to track that simply because of our ability to test.”

Hite also said Wednesday that he agreed with the board of education’s most recent job evaluation of him, which rated him as “needs improvement” in the areas of operations and student achievement. The board did research that showed, among other things, that student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card, put Philadelphia near the bottom compared to comparable urban districts.

“Yes, I do agree with the evaluation,” he said. “With respect to [student] performance of the district, yes we have to do better, and I’m the one who is ultimately responsible for all of that.”

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