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In dramatic turnaround, most Philadelphia schools will be in-person this week

A parent in a green shirt and jeans holds a backpack in the middle of a play yard at a new school. Other parents and children can be seen in the distance.

Most district schools in Philadelphia are heading back to in-person learning after almost half were shifted to virtual this week due to staffing shortages.

Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat

After shifting nearly half of its schools to remote learning last week, the Philadelphia school district announced Monday that 15 schools will be virtual this week.

The district Friday said eight schools would shift to remote learning and Monday added seven to the list due to staffing challenges caused by the omicron variant. The 15 schools will be virtual the rest of the week. All schools were closed Jan. 17 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Since returning from winter break, the district has struggled to keep its schools open for in-person learning amid a dramatic surge in COVID cases. Many teachers and other staff members were either sick or in quarantine. 

Monica Lewis, a district spokesperson, said Friday that most schools are expected to be open this week because staff members are returning.

“There’s a shift in number because there aren’t any staff infections in the schools. It may have been that people who were infected are no longer infected,” Lewis said.

The district’s list includes Northeast High School EOP and Northeast High School, which are shifting to virtual through Jan. 22 as recommended by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

The other schools are: Allen M. Stearne School, Delaplaine McDaniel School, Gateway To College, Joseph Pennell School, Ombudsman Northwest Accelerated, Roosevelt Elementary School, Hancock Demonstration School, James G. Blaine School, Louis H. Farrell Elementary School, Roberto Clemente Middle School, Samuel Pennypacker Elementary School, Thomas Edison High School and Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School.

The district closed the schools due to staffing shortages, but the PDPH closed Northeast, which has 3,000 students, because it reached a threshold of 10% positive COVID test results. 

Superintendent William Hite said Friday that he was “hopeful that Philadelphia will be approaching the end of the omicron surge soon, and we can return to a consistent in-person learning experience for all of our young people.”

Hite asked families to continue to be flexible and prepare for the “possibility of virtual learning at any time.”

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has been advocating for schools to go remote until the district ramps up its safety plan in consultation with union leaders. The PFT wants the district to provide more PPE, including N95 and KN95 masks, expand testing and vaccination programs, and have a school nurse in every building every day.

The union issued no statement after the district’s announcement, but spokesperson Hillary Linardopoulos said via text message: “Our advocacy for an adequate and jointly developed safety plan continues.”

District officials have been steadfast in their commitment to keep as many schools open for in-person learning as possible, despite the challenges posed by the increase in cases caused by the more contagious omicron variant. 

But many teachers have said the sudden switches from in-person to remote learning make it difficult to plan lessons and teach. Many students also have been absent, because they were sick with COVID, in quarantine, or fear coming to school in person.

Robin Cooper, president of CASA, the Philly principals’ union she said was skeptical about the rapid reduction in schools offering virtual learning.

“We want in-person learning, but we want it done safely. If there’s been conversation around the staffing and not conversation around the deep cleaning of buildings, we still have an issue.”

In the last two weeks 28.8% of COVID tests in the city have been positive. The city has averaged 3,301 new cases per day during that time period, according to data released Friday by the health department. 

Health officials, however, have said that it is important to keep schools open because students are best served by in-person learning. Health Secretary Dr. Cheryl Bettigole also has said that in-school transmission has been low.

Vaccination rates have improved for children ages 5 to 11, with 30% getting at least one dose. That’s up from November, when the number was about 9%. Among eligible Philadelphians ages 12 and older, 72.5% are fully vaccinated, and 92.3% have received at least one dose.

The district advised Friday that “grab-and-go” meal boxes will be available for pick up between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. for any district student who is temporarily learning virtually or quarantining at home. There were no meal sites Monday due to the holiday. 

The district is requiring staff at the 15 schools to report to work in person unless they are self-isolating or quarantining due to COVID or exposure or have an approved leave. This excludes Northeast High and EOP, which are all virtual for students and staff.

Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting

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