This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATE: 10 pm
School officials announced last night that 63 schools will close tomorrow because teachers who live in Montgomery County will not be able to get to work.
The late-night press release, which includes a list of the schools, said that 11%, or 2,100 of the 18,000 School District employees, live in Montgomery County, and that in 63 schools at least 15% of the school-based staff live there. “The anticipated staffing impact to these 63 schools makes it unlikely they will be able to function as fully operating schools that would effectively meet the needs of our students,” the release said.
Parents were getting individual calls telling them of the development. Shortly after the word got out, the District website crashed.
The announcement came hours after city officials announced that they had decided to keep schools in Philadelphia open in the wake of the novel coronavirus, although they are stopping school events that draw large crowds, plus student and staff travel for at least the next several weeks.
Superintendent William Hite reiterated that there are no suspected or confirmed cases in the District.
They also confirmed that a city teacher is self-isolating for two weeks after a relative tested positive for COVID-19. Officials did not confirm the teacher’s school, but social media reports indicated it was Randolph High School.
At a media briefing Thursday afternoon, Hite said that this teacher’s COVID-19 test had come back negative, but added that an undetermined number of other teachers were self-isolating due to recent travel to areas that have been affected. He reiterated that there are no suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 in an employee or student in the District.
At the briefing, held with Mayor Kenney and other city officials in a worryingly crowded room at the Fire Department Administration Building at Second and Spring Garden, Hite and Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley, said that schools would remain open. However, athletic contests, plays, concerts, trips planned for spring break, and work-related travel for staff are cancelled.
Practices will still be allowed, Hite said.
Coming on the heels of news that Gov. Wolf had ordered the virtual shutdown of Montgomery County, where half of the state’s more than 20 known cases are located, Hite and Farley said that closing schools en masse is not a decision made lightly in a city like Philadelphia.
At the time, the officials apparently did not have a handle on the effects that Gov. Wolf’s action would have on the city schools.
“Since the onset of the coronavirus situation in the Philadelphia area, it has been the goal of our School District to safely keep our doors open as long as possible,” said Hite in the late-night statement. “Unfortunately, the current set of circumstances make it difficult for us to keep all of our schools open.”
At the afternoon news conference, Farley noted that children seem to have a low risk of getting the virus.
Plus, in Philadelphia – the nation’s poorest big city – “a large number of them depend on schools for shelter, health, meals and safety,” Hite said in the afternoon, and reiterated the point in the later announcement.
He added then that closure decisions would be made on a school-by-school basis if the need arises.
Farley said that schools are “a bedrock of society” and that closing them would cause major problems for families.
“In Philadelphia, about half of children in schools have a single parent, and if the child stays home, the parent cannot be in the workforce,” he said. “We need our workforce to support all of us, to maintain our utilities, maintain our groceries, to maintain our health-care systems. So we have to keep our schools open if at all possible.”
Some expressed concern over the city and District’s decision, noting that although children don’t get sick, they can still carry the virus and infect more susceptible family members. Parents had robust debates on social media over the best course of action regarding sending children to school.
WE understand that we serve the children and families of Philly, and that is our privilege; however, schools are incubators, students are not as susceptible to #Covid_19, but they can be carriers. They also go home to adults and older family members who are at risk. #PhlEd— Caucus of Working Educators (@CaucusofWE) March 12, 2020
Hite said that student absences spiked on Monday, but have returned to normal since, or at least to the levels they were at this time last year.
The Board of Education has also made some changes. It will hold its March 19 committee meetings as planned, but move them from the smaller board meeting room to the larger auditorium to increase “social distancing.” It will also ask speakers to stay three feet away from microphones and will enforce crowd-size limits.
At the briefing, Kenney banned gatherings of more than 1,000 persons for at least two weeks and recommended that there be no gatherings of more than 250.
Hite offered no statistics on teacher absentee rates. Reports showed that the Randolph teacher left school Wednesday immediately after hearing about the relative’s diagnosis, per District policy. Neither Hite nor anyone else would confirm the work location of the teacher or any others that might have put themselves in isolation.
In confirming this situation before the briefing, District communications officer Megan Lello said, “If someone is known to come into contact with someone who has a confirmed case, we’re asking them to self-report to us they were in contact and follow the self-isolation for 14 days.”
The District also has communicated to employees about how to categorize their time off if they self-isolate.
“If an employee is confirmed to have coronavirus after 14 days isolation, sick days are used from that point on,” said District spokeswoman Monica Lewis. “This is a situation we’ve never experienced … an ever-evolving situation … and policies could be amended” to address it.
The District reiterated that it is doing “enhanced cleaning” of schools, with general cleaners starting at 8 a.m. in additional to regular cleaning staff, who stay until 8 p.m. It is also cleaning the interior of school buses after morning and afternoon routes each day, and “all schools have been equipped with disinfecting wipes and new hand-sanitizer stations have been placed in hallways, entryways, nurse’s offices, cafeterias, and gymnasiums.”
Some teachers are worried that the sanitizers are not alcohol-based, but District officials said that has been true for several years as officials decided that the non-alcohol-based cleaners were safer in cases of misuse or ingestion.