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Are Philly schools heading back to normal? Teachers union says not so fast.

A student at Ombudsman Chicago South works on a Chromebook during the first day of school in August 2021.

After weeks of uncertainty caused by staff shortages, all district schools in Philadelphia returned to in-person learning Monday.

Lauren Miller for Chalkbeat

For the first time in a month, all Philadelphia public schools opened their doors for in-person learning Monday. But education leaders still insist that the district needs to do more to ensure that learning spaces for students are safe amid the current omicron surge.

Just two weeks ago, as COVID cases jumped, the district shifted 92 schools, almost half of its 216 schools, to remote learning due to staff shortages. The number of teachers calling out sick has dropped dramatically, with only 15 schools affected last week.

The district said Monday that some schools were recommended for a 10-day pause under the guidance of the city’s health department because of multiple cases right before the winter break, but none were for COVID-related staffing challenges, which was the case for the first three weeks since returning from break.

The district “firmly believes that in-person learning is best for our students,” said Monica Lewis, spokesperson for the school district.

The district has been at odds with the teachers and principals unions in its handling of students returning to school after the winter break. When COVID-19 cases began to soar in December, educators called for a temporary return to in-person learning with tighter protocols.

Their outcry grew after the death last year of an unvaccinated student at Olney Charter High School. Education leaders demanded that schools go remote ahead of the holiday break, which began Dec. 24. Eight schools were closed temporarily and given 10-day and 48-day pauses because of positive cases.

Since then, the threshold for closing schools has gone from 10% of the school population to no recommendation to close schools due to a certain level of positive cases.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, remains skeptical about the district’s mitigation strategies and the new threshold for schools to temporarily close.

“While case counts have decreased over the past week, deaths have not, and we cannot be lulled into complacency,” Jordan said. “Mitigation strategies in schools must be strengthened.”

The health department disputes that claim. During the pandemic, 262,226 Philadelphians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 4,434 have died. The city’s daily average has also improved with 902 new cases per day over the last two weeks compared to more than 3,000 a few weeks ago.

The teachers union said it is concerned by new guidance issued by the health department that removes the threshold for school closures and by the guidance issued by CHOP that effectively removes COVID testing. 

“There is significant work ahead in ensuring that our members and students feel confident that they have the necessary safety measures in place for in-person learning,” Jordan said.

Robin Cooper, the president of CASA, the principals union, told Chalkbeat they’ve always wanted face-to-face learning because “we believe it’s the best way to learn.”

“However we want it done in a safe and responsible way and not just because the health department and the school district just changes the criteria to ensure that everybody comes face-to-face without any safeguards in place for the safety of our students,” Cooper said. “Putting folks together and saying COVID is over. It just doesn’t work like that.”

Jim Garrow, director of communication for the city health department, contends that in-person education can be done safely and is best for Philadelphia students. 

“Given the known negatives of an all-virtual education, it was imperative that we implement the safest guidance possible to avoid those negative outcomes,” Garrow said.

Vaccination numbers across the city have drastically improved over the past month. Over 34% of 5- to 11-year-olds in Philadelphia have received at least one COVID vaccine dose. Among eligible Philadelphians ages 12 and older, 73.4% are fully vaccinated, and 92.8% have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

“Our testing data has shown that the omicron wave has slowed considerably with new cases today approximately half of what they were last week,” Garrow said. “With fewer people becoming sick, it is anticipated that schools are benefiting from that drop.”

District parent Maritza Guridy, whose children attend Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary, which was one of the 15 schools that went temporarily to remote learning last week, said the sudden shift was hard.

Even though classes were remote, many teachers still called out sick, Guridy said. “I can’t even say that my son was online for more than two hours a day for a kindergartener.”

Another district parent Laurie Mazer, whose two students at Coppin Elementary in South Philadelphia, isn’t convinced the schools are safe.

“If they [the district] aren’t providing N95 masks for kids, then there is no assurance to any of us that the schools are actually safe,” Mazer said.

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