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Survey: Most students, staff say they will return to school if safety measures are in place

They also favor a mix of online and in-person learning, with the most support given to an alternate-day staggered schedule for students.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Most students, parents, and school-based staff who responded to a Philadelphia School District reopening survey indicated that they would feel comfortable returning to school in person if a number of safety measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control were put in place.

As far as schedules, staff, and parents favored a mix of online and in-person learning, with the most support being for a system in which different students would attend on different days.

The survey, which was open on the District website from June 15 to June 22, was filled out by about 35,000 respondents, who were asked to rank reopening scenarios from most desirable to least desirable. Released Wednesday, the survey results will inform Superintendent William Hite’s plans to reopen schools amid a recent surge in coronavirus cases across the country.

Respondents were worried most about safety precautions within schools, but concerns about child care and transportation were also of note in the 42-page summary.

In total, there were 11 proposed safety measures, and respondents indicated that mandatory mask-wearing, daily temperature checks, and the presence of handwashing and sanitizing stations were the three most important to them when it came to keeping kids and families safe from the pandemic.

Only 47% of parents said they would allow their kids to go back to school if there were no modifications to current safety procedures in educational facilities. That went up to 62% of parents if all 11 safety measures were put in place. Among school-based staff, almost three in four say they would definitely return if those safety measures are present, with 17% unsure and 10% saying they would continue virtual school.

Nearly a third of respondents overall ranked mandatory mask-wearing as the most important safety measure, but some parents had reservations.

“I understand the importance of mask wearing, but I am concerned masks will hinder learning and interrupt communication since they cannot read each other’s faces,” one parent said.

Another parent brought up potential issues for students who have asthma.

“I am not comfortable with my child sitting in a classroom with a mask all day,” the parent said. “He has asthma. He will be in second grade and will potentially play with the mask or try to remove it because he has difficulty breathing.”

More than two-thirds of students say they would return to school in the fall if the buildings were cleaned every day, but doing so would be expensive and time-consuming. A lot of parents worry that the District doesn’t have the resources to accomplish this — especially when many students reported at a Philadelphia Student Union meeting that, under normal circumstances, schools already aren’t equipped with enough soap, sanitizer, or toilet paper.

“My child’s school was barely clean before COVID and I don’t trust that the school will be properly cleaned and sanitized thoroughly,” one parent said. “Even sanitizing at the end of the day will not be sufficient because children are germ carriers, and throughout the day touch everything repeatedly.”

Several parents and guardians urged the District to at least offer the option of complete online learning, because some students are vulnerable to the virus due to underlying conditions and others have family members that are immunocompromised.

“Please consider virtual learning for students who have underlying health conditions and/or students who [have] family with vulnerable conditions,” one parent said. “Our household has more than one individual with underlying conditions. One gets sick and it affects all of us.”

Similar to the results of the teachers’ union’s reopening survey, both school-based staff and parents favored a hybrid model for returning to school — a mix between virtual and in-person education. But respondents to the union survey favored a week-on, week-off approach, whereas 27% of respondents in the District survey favored students coming in on alternate days in shifts (i.e. half the students attend on day A and the other half on day B, with all students engaging in virtual learning on the days they don’t physically go to school).

The top choice in the District survey didn’t win out by a huge margin, however. Twenty-two percent of respondents advocated that all students come in every day, but in staggered shifts by time (i.e one group of kids in the morning and another in the afternoon). Eighteen percent of respondents said students should come to school in alternate weeks. Teachers in the union survey made it clear that they didn’t favor a schedule that would have some kids attend in the morning and a different group in the afternoon.

Some parents, especially those with more than one child, said it would be difficult — even impossible — to juggle multiple different shifts for different children throughout the day.

“It would be most helpful to know if a family will be able to coordinate schedules among their children,” one parent said. “I have four children, presently at three different schools, in ages 4-9 … three different schedules would be untenable.”

Hite said the District will announce its reopening plan in about two weeks.