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Some district schools are finally reopening. Here’s what we know about Philadelphia’s in-person learning plan.

Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William Hite announced the latest reopening plan Monday — an approach agreed to under the guidance of an outside mediator brought in last month at the request of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Classroom of desks spaced 6 feet apart with shields on top of the desks.
Philadelphia classroom of desks spaced six feet apart with shields on top of the desks.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

Nearly a year after they left school buildings amid the coronavirus pandemic, some of Philadelphia’s early-grade teachers and students are slated to return in three phases this month, starting with those in 53 schools.

Some teachers are expected to return Wednesday and students on Monday, March 8. But the classrooms they return to will look little like the ones they left behind.

When all 152 buildings with prekindergarten through second grade students are open — possibly by March 22 — about 9,000 students who selected hybrid learning would attend in-person school two days a week under the plan, engaging in remote learning the other three days. They’ll be required to undergo a symptom screening and wear masks, and they will see plexiglass partitions in offices and on their desks and sit in socially distanced classrooms.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers environmental scientist Jerry Roseman is still reviewing documentation for other schools to vouch for their safety, particularly around ventilation and the potential presence of asbestos.

Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William Hite announced the latest reopening plan Monday, an approach agreed to under the guidance of an outside mediator brought in last month at the union’s request.

Here’s what we know so far about Philadelphia’s hybrid learning plan.

How many schools will open?

There are 147 district elementary schools housing the early grades slated to return in the coming weeks. In addition, five high schools have pre-K classrooms: Edison, South Philadelphia, Lincoln, George Washington, and Motivation. For the first 53 schools cleared for reopening, which include 51 elementaries and the pre-K classrooms at Edison and Lincoln, teachers will return on Wednesday and students on March 8. The plan is for the next group of schools to be announced next week, with students returning March 15 and the teachers the Wednesday before. The last group of schools would open for students on March 22.

Are the district’s buildings safe?

Adequate ventilation in the district’s aging buildings has been a main subject of the just-concluded mediation between the school district and the PFT. Given the history in many buildings of asbestos and other hazards, the union is still reviewing documentation and other evidence to ensure that the learning spaces are fit for occupancy. In an effort to improve air circulation in some classrooms, the district purchased 3,000 window fans. But after widespread criticism that they were an inadequate and misguided solution, the two sides in mediation decided not to use them. Instead, the district will buy air purifiers for those rooms and rely more on opening windows in classrooms where that is possible.

What safeguards are in place?

Students and staff will perform a daily self-screening at home, using this document, which asks questions including if they have any symptoms or have been exposed to anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Students and staff will be required to wear masks. They can bring their own, but the district will also provide masks for staff and students.

New setups in bathrooms and classrooms will promote social distancing, and each room will have maximum occupancy signs posted outside. Offices will have plexiglass partitions, and touch-free hand sanitizer and water stations will be available in hallways. The district said enhanced cleaning protocols using EPA-approved products will be put in place.

What about eating, when students are not wearing masks?

School staff will place decals on seats in cafeterias so students are not sitting face-to-face. When possible, all students will face in the same direction when eating. Here is a video about eating in school during COVID-19.

What will the scheduling for hybrid learning look like?

To maintain social distancing, half of students will attend on Mondays and Tuesday, while the other half attends Thursdays and Fridays under the staggered schedule. All students will learn remotely on Wednesdays, when schools and classrooms will undergo extra cleaning. Students will be kept in cohorts to limit interaction as much as possible.

What will remote days look like?

Teachers will provide instruction via livestream for students who are home while also responding to students in the classroom. Each classroom to be used has been equipped with a document camera. These are designed to project documents onto a huge smartboard in the room and over the internet to students who are tuned in remotely.

However, the camera can be trained on anything, including the teacher. If the teacher writes something on the smartboard, the camera can face the board so that both the students in class and the students at home can see what is on it. Teachers can see who is logged on from home on their own computer screen, and they will wear microphones so that students at home can hear what they are saying.

Some school districts chose to have different teachers instruct the in-person classes and the remote learners. But Philadelphia parents made it clear they wanted their students to remain connected to their own classroom teacher. Teachers will be able to engage with the remote students while those in the classroom are doing work, and vice versa.

What about testing for COVID-19?

The district’s human resources chief Larisa Shambough told the City Council recently that staff members will be tested weekly, using two outside contractors: Docs Health, which was selected by the Philadelphia Department of Health, and Wellness Coaches, selected by district insurer Independence Blue Cross.

Hite said he is also planning for rapid COVID-19 testing of students when school buildings reopen. Those tests will be provided by CHOP and administered by the school nurse, and each school that is open will have a full-time nurse on duty. Parents will be asked to grant permission for this testing. More information on student testing can be found here.

What will happen if someone tests positive for COVID-19 in a reopened school?

Any person in a cohort that tests positive will require the entire cohort to pause in-person learning for 14 days. The individuals within the cohort will be asked to quarantine at home for 10 days.

If there are six or more COVID-19 positive cases within a 14-day period, the entire school will be asked to pause in-person learning for two weeks. The Philadelphia Department of Public Health describes six cases within 14 days in one school as an “outbreak.”

Is the outbreak the only thing that triggers a school closure?

There may be instances that schools decide to pause in-person learning for a period of time if a positive case is someone with whom many others have come in contact. For instance, it could be the building engineer who does not regularly mix with students and other staff.

How will the contract tracing be done?

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health has provided written and verbal guidance to schools. The schools have their own internal processes, and the schools will notify the department of health of the positive case, at which time a member of the city’s COVID Schools team will begin contact tracing.

When can parents opt in or out of in-person learning?

Parents who chose hybrid learning in the fall can change their mind at any time and go fully remote. Hite said that about 400 families have done this, but many others have said they would like to switch their choice to in-person learning. Hite said there may be an opportunity to enroll students after buildings reopen, and the district has a chance to see how many students actually show up and how many more could be accommodated while maintaining all safety protocols.

When will other groups of students return to in-person learning?

This is unknown. Hite has said he would like special education students in grades three through eight to come back, as well as high school students in career and technical education programs. But this will depend on many factors, including building conditions and the rate of COVID-19 spread in the community. He has also suggested that the district will make use of summer school to help students catch up and offer more in-person instruction to the CTE students who need to be certified on equipment only available in schools.

What do we know about the plan to vaccinate school staff?

The vaccination program started Feb. 22 at the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and has expanded to six school-based sites throughout the city to offer vaccination opportunities as close to employees’ communities as possible.

CHOP is working with schools and child care providers to identify and reach out to employees who are eligible for vaccination and to provide them with information about how to register for an appointment online. Hite said in announcing the reopening agreement that the seven sites now have the capacity to offer 9,000 vaccinations a week. Not all of those, however, will go to district employees; many are also for the staff of private and charter schools, and child care workers.

According to a CHOP spokesperson, educational personnel will be vaccinated in three waves: staff currently working in private schools and child care centers that have remained open, educators expected back soon, including the district’s early grade teachers, and then all other school staff. Hite said he didn’t know how many district employees had been vaccinated, but he said it was at least in the hundreds, “if not thousands.”

The CHOP spokesperson said: “Our goal is to complete the 2-dose vaccination series for all student-facing personnel in the city within six weeks — and the city has assured us that we will be given enough vaccine to accomplish this goal within this timeframe.”

Johann Calhoun contributed reporting.

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