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Hite offers school tour to show Philadelphia is ready for hybrid reopening

A window fan is shown at George W. Nebinger Elementary School in South Philadelphia.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

As the School District of Philadelphia and the teachers union wait for the results of mediation, Superintendent William Hite defended the district’s urgency to begin hybrid learning for the youngest students and raised the possibility of extending the school year.

Hite also suggested that some school buildings could open to students, while others that may need to improve their ventilation systems could remain closed.

“Right now, this is an all or nothing conversation,” he said Thursday at a press conference. “If there are schools people are worried about, then let us mediate those schools. If it’s the 32 schools with fans in the windows, then let’s bring the others back and not hold everybody to the same standard when we know we have schools that are safe to take children today.”

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite wearing a face mask.
Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite at George W. Nebinger Elementary School on Thursday.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

About 9,000 students from pre-kindergarten to second grade are due back Feb. 22 under Hite’s plan, a timetable he said he still hoped could be met. He expressed frustration with what he described as the slow pace of mediation, saying that the first meeting between the parties did not occur until Wednesday.

Spokeswomen for the city and the union both said the mediator, Dr. Peter Orris of Chicago, has been reviewing documents from the district and the union since last week and that the process is going as planned. The two sides had additional meetings Thursday and are planning more Friday, they said.

Hite held the press conference at Nebinger Elementary School in Queen Village, where he gave reporters a tour and showed them the window fans the district bought to help improve ventilation. The 100-year-old building has a non-working ventilation system. It is one of 32 schools in the district using some of the 3,000 fans purchased to aid in the return to some in-person learning.

Classroom of desks spaced 6 feet apart with shields on top of the desks.
Classroom setup using social distancing.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

Parents and teachers have criticized the use of the window fans, but experts have said they could improve air circulation in the buildings.

“I know the fans may not look pretty or fancy, but scientifically, they perform the job we need them to do,” Hite said to masked reporters carefully socially distanced in the building’s ornate auditorium.

Hite promised that the district would conduct frequent air balancing tests in the classroom to make sure the fans were working as intended.

Under Hite’s plan for a phased-in school reopening, staff was scheduled to return on Feb. 8 and students on Feb. 22. But the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, claiming buildings were not safe, requested mediation to determine whether the district was following all the safety protocols it had agreed to last fall.

Union President Jerry Jordan told his members not to return to buildings Monday, and instead they protested outside their schools and taught remotely. Jordan and many teachers cite inadequate ventilation on top of other longstanding issues in the aging and often poorly maintained infrastructure, including problems with asbestos, mold and lead paint.

Hite said he is committed to having safe buildings, but he argued that students were being harmed by all-remote learning.

A recent report from the district’s Office of Research and Evaluation found that students who had their 2019-2020 kindergarten year cut short by the pandemic showed the largest decline in performance on the aimswebPlus reading assessment in first grade in the fall. The decline was “across demographic subgroups,” the report said.

Current first graders ranked in the 28th percentile, down 15 percentage points from their scores in kindergarten, according to the report. Students in subsequent grades up to fifth had smaller declines.

The youngest children also need to learn social skills, he said, adding that this year’s kindergartners haven’t been inside a school at all yet.

Hand holding a thermometer to measure the temperature of the room. The screen reads 82 degrees.
In this room with a fan on, the temperature is 82 degrees. The hallways are hotter.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

“That will affect them in first grade” and beyond, he said, adding that it may be time to offer summer school to help some students catch up.

Overall, in the quest for normalcy, there needs to be a look at a variety of policy changes.

“It has to become a more nuanced conversation,” he said.

Some teachers who protested outside their buildings Monday said that even if they felt their own building was safe, they wanted assurances that all buildings are safe before starting any in-person learning.

During the press conference, Hite emphasized that ventilation is “another layer of safety,” to be used on top of social distancing, mask wearing, enhanced cleaning, and the availability of hand sanitizer. He said it’s not the primary way to stem virus spread. Dr. Susan Coffin of the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who also attended the press conference, backed Hite up.

Monica Lewis wearing a face mask and gesturing to a smart board in a Philadelphia classroom.
District spokeswoman Monica Lewis shows how a smart board works.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

“While it is useful to have good ventilation, it is not what has gotten us to this incredible success that we’re experiencing,” she said, speaking of the steady recent decline in COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia.

Coffin, who is a specialist in pediatric infection control, said “we know the key elements that will keep us safe whether we are at the grocery store, at school, or on an airplane.”

Many teachers, however, have not been convinced, and were particularly outraged when city health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley on Tuesday unveiled ventilation standards for increasing the capacity for indoor dining at restaurants that are higher than those he has endorsed for schools.

Farley defended this by saying people are not masked when eating in restaurants. Most national studies have shown that schools are not major sources of the spread of COVID-19, as long as safety protocols are carefully followed.

Hite also noted that “thousands” of school employees have already been working in the buildings “without issues.” He said there have been cases of COVID-19, but no evidence that spread occurred in the buildings themselves. There also has not been any evidence of spread in six regional centers that have been open to evaluate special education students with complex needs, he said.

Nebinger’s longtime building engineer, Joan Terrell, known as “Miss JT,” led reporters on one of the tours of pre-K through second grade classrooms. Asked how long she has been working since the pandemic shut school buildings in March, she said she “never left.” She has been tending to the old building’s mechanical systems and making sure everything is kept clean. She has worked for the district for 33 years and at Nebinger for 18.

Building engineer Joan Terrell shows off the device used to measure temperatures in classrooms with fans.
Building engineer Joan Terrell shows off the gadget she will regularly use to measure temperatures in classrooms with fans.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

Asked if she feels safe in the building, she said, “yes.”

On the tour, reporters saw occupancy signs outside each classroom, desks spaced far apart with plexiglass barriers, bottles of hand sanitizer on tables at the entrance, and new smartboards in the front. Now familiar circular floor signs marking six feet of distance dotted hallway floors.

The students learning remotely will see what the teacher puts on the smartboards, not what is happening in the classroom.

In some rooms, the fans were on. Terrell showed reporters the device she will use to periodically check room temperatures to make sure they stay around 68 degrees. While some people fear that the rooms will get too cold because the fans bring in outside air, the rooms at Nebinger were hot. The device recorded 82 degrees in one room.

Nebinger expects 50 students to return, meaning that no more than 25 will be in the building at any one time.

A sign posted outside a classroom on a bulletin board that reads "maximum occupancy: 15".
A sign outside a classroom showing the maximum occupancy at 15.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

Although some classes were marked as safe for 18 people, just five or six students are expected to be in the room with the teacher at any one time. Under Hite’s plan, students will return in two cohorts, with half attending on Monday and Tuesday, and half on Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday for cleaning.

Hite said most of the 9,000 students who chose hybrid learning in the fall have indicated they still intend to come back. “In fact, we have been getting requests for other individuals to be considered to return as well,” he said.

In total, 137 school buildings will open under the plan, including a handful of high schools that house pre-K centers.

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