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81 Philadelphia schools to go virtual amid surge in COVID cases and staffing shortage

A gloved hand applies a flesh-colored bandaid to a child’s arm. The child is wearing a pink and white tie-dyed shirt rolled up to the shoulder. A few strands of dark hair are visible on the child’s shoulder.

A young learner gets a bandage after receiving a vaccination shot. With a rise in COVID cases, 77 schools in Philadelphia will go remote.

Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat

The fight to rebuild school communities after two years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

School officials announced late Monday that 81 district schools will shift to virtual learning when the district reopens Tuesday, a decision prompted by staffing challenges amid Philadelphia’s surge in COVID cases.

The move to remote learning at the schools was a major shift for the district, which had been resolute that school buildings would reopen after winter break even as the teachers union called for a district-wide shift to virtual instruction.

In a statement released at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Superintendent William Hite announced that 77 schools wouldn’t open in-person and said the district has been “closely tracking data to determine COVID’s impact on staff coverage in schools” and is making “school-by-school decisions.” Shortly before midnight, the district added four more schools to the remote list.
All other district-run schools will be open for in-person learning Tuesday, according to the district. Staff at the 81 virtual schools will still be expected to report to work in person “unless they are self-isolating or quarantining due to COVID testing or exposure, have COVID-like symptoms and are awaiting test results, or have an approved leave.” Staff members in those situations will be able to provide instruction virtually, the district said.

Monday’s announcement was apparently a disappointment to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose president, Jerry Jordan, urged Hite to delay the return to in-person learning following the winter break because of safety concerns. 

After the late announcement, the union tweeted that the district was “undertaking a piecemeal plan that leaves parents and staff alike scrambling to make plans.”

Some families were caught off guard by the last-minute change. “I think they should have made this decision a long time ago given we have seen the COVID numbers rising. It is putting a lot of people in a bind. It’s the right decision but it came too late,” said Carla Lewandowski, who has three children at Mifflin Elementary School in East Falls.

Lewandowski is a college professor and has some flexibility, but she said she is taking in a child that’s not hers because the parents “don’t know what they’re going to do tomorrow.” She also said she plans to go to her in-laws for help.

Before the winter break, 19 district schools were forced to close temporarily due to COVID cases. The city is recording at least 600 cases per day, compared to an average of 200 cases per day two months ago, according to the health department.  

Two hours before the district announced the partial move to remote instruction, Monica Lewis, a district spokesperson, said the district intended to open schools as planned, with the same safety protocols in place. The district requires students and staff to wear masks, has a vaccine mandate for staff and student athletes, and tests staff and symptomatic students. 

“The district will continue to test staff and, throughout the winter break, encouraged staff, students and families to get tested in order for them to know their status,” she said.

James Garrow, communications director for the city’s health department, said health officials supported the district’s decision to move forward with in-person learning. He said a seven-day district-wide pause would not make children any safer.

The teachers union had warned the district that it could face staffing shortages because of sick employees. Hillary Linardopouls, a union spokesperson, said Monday that more than 1,000 members have reported positive cases to the union, and 2,000 have reported positive cases in their households.

In his letter, Jordan said more than 3,000 union members reported that they needed to take a COVID test over the winter break, but more than half of those had trouble getting tested.

Garrow said the health department is working to increase the availability of testing across the city for all age groups — though none specifically for children.

“There is unprecedented demand for testing services throughout the city and region. This demand and a lack of supply of testing materials, testing kits, and health care professionals to administer tests has made finding testing exceptionally difficult,” he said.

According to data on the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health, positive COVID cases among school-age children in Philadelphia, those ages of 5-18, have been rising steadily since mid-November and doubled between Dec. 22 and Dec. 28. 

The most recent chart shows 2,087 positive cases in that age group for the week of Dec. 22 to Dec. 28, compared to 1,025 cases in the prior seven days. That’s up considerably since mid-November, when there were about 420 cases in the week before Thanksgiving. There are approximately 250,000 people in that age group in the city; since mid-August, 11,380 have tested positive for COVID, according to the state health department.

Garrow said there has been no evidence of widespread in-school transmission, which means the vast majority of COVID cases have been found to come from family members and other community sites, as opposed to from other students, staff, and teachers in the school building.

After the announcement, principals union President Robin Cooper sent a statement urging Hite to pause in-person learning for all of the schools. To reopen for in-person instruction, the district needs to have N95 masks, deep cleaning in each school, and more support to handle a large number of vacancies in the schools, she said.

Cooper said that based on a survey of 107 school principals, 665 teachers and 205 staff dealing with school climate would be absent this week just in those schools.

“It is clear from the upward COVID trends flowing from the Thanksgiving school holiday, that we can expect the same if not greater illness from this winter school break. We sound the alarm that in-person learning will increase the surge of cases,” Cooper said.

Lewandowski, the parent at Mifflin, said one of her child’s teachers has COVID and couldn’t have taught in person this week anyway. “We already have a lot of staff shortages, kids are going into classes that are not theirs, classes in another grade,” she said.

Dana Carter, a former teacher and organizer for the Racial Justice Organizing Committee, a coalition of city teachers, students, and activists, has been tracking the data and watching the case counts increase each week since November. She said some parents warned organizing a strike for the rest of this week, risking truancy charges but saying that they felt the dangers were too great to send their children to school buildings. 

“People are terrified, including the teachers,” Carter said.

Parent Maritza Guridy, who lives in Nicetown-Tioga, said she was in favor of returning to in-person learning – but only if the district tests students and staff for COVID. Guridy, who caught the virus, has one child at Creative and Performing Arts High School, or CAPA, and three at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary. Those schools were not among the 81 to shift to remote learning this week.

“My husband and I are not sending them back until they are all tested on Wednesday. I think the children should stay home and only be allowed back into the school building if their  families can provide proof that the child has been tested negative,” she said.

Tonayia Coffer, a parent from the Northeast, was not in favor of students returning to in-person learning. She has four children, one at Northeast High School and the others at MaST Community Charter School II, and all were infected with COVID during the winter break. They have been in quarantine and are ready to return to school. She noted Mast2 officials gave parents an option to do virtual or in-person learning this week.

​​”I don’t believe the schools have been thoroughly disinfected and cleaned prior to or after the holiday season. I am in agreement to take a few extra weeks or days to do the proper cleaning through schools and the testing that’s needed to ensure that families and students and staff will be safe when they return to the buildings,” she said.

Ernie Bristow, the guardian of a student who attends Cook-Wissahickon School, said she didn’t want to send her grandson to in-person school this week. She found out late Monday that his school was among the 81 that would shift to remote learning.

“He was already home, but I did not want to send him back this week because of the high cases that’s been going on before the kids got back. So you can imagine how many kids would have been heading back, probably sick coughing and testing positive like crazy,” she said.

Bristow said her grandson was already prepared for the possibility of virtual learning but didn’t know it was going to happen so soon.

Across the country, school districts are taking different approaches to the rise in infections. Districts such as Detroit and Newark chose to delay their returns to in-person learning, while many districts chose to reopen with ramped up testing and other altered protocols.

Mastery Charter, which runs 18 Philadelphia schools with more than 11,000 students, announced it is staying virtual until Jan. 18.

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