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‘This is not the way to handle things’: Teachers and parents say Philly’s partial reopening of schools is chaotic

A kindergarten student sits at a desk with safety barriers inside a classroom.

With a surge in COVID cases and the resulting staff shortages, the Philadelphia school district shifted 84 schools to remote learning after the winter break.

Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat

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

After abruptly shifting about a third of its schools to remote learning, the Philadelphia school district opened the rest of its schools for in-person instruction Tuesday — a partial reopening that the city’s teachers union blasted as “chaotic” and “untenable.”

The announcement that 81 schools would open remotely came late Monday, causing confusion and last-minute child care issues for some families. 

At 7:30 p.m. Monday, the district announced that 77 schools would shift to virtual for the week because of staffing issues – too many teachers were sick, in quarantine, or awaiting the results of a COVID test. At 11:30 p.m., it added four more schools to the list. Then on Tuesday, after opening for in-person instruction, another three schools announced they would shift to remote for the rest of the week.

Eight more schools were added late Tuesday night, bringing to 92 the total number of schools shifting to temporary remote instruction.

Leah Wood, a classroom assistant at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, said staff members were “scrambling” Tuesday morning. She said the buses weren’t alerted that the school had shifted to virtual – and two students started getting off the bus to go to school.

“We had to flag the bus driver down and tell them ‘you’ve got to take them back home,’” she said.

After facing criticism for the rollout, district officials said they remained intent on keeping as many schools open for in-person learning as possible and would continue making day-to-day decisions. But announcements of next-day closures will now be made at consistent times –  4 p.m. and 10 p.m. –  “a process that will allow leadership to make informed decisions for students and staff using real-time data that can change dramatically throughout the day,” the district said.  

But parents and others say the process is a nightmare for families.

“What the school district did yesterday was blatant in that we don’t care about families, period,” said parent Ashley Jimenez, who has four children in three different district schools. “There is no way that anyone sat in a room and thought that this was the best decision for families across the district to do what they did.”

Kate Sannicks-Lerner, a kindergarten teacher and union representative at Julio DeBurgos Elementary, disagreed with the decision to open some schools for in-person learning but not others. She said she was concerned about the rising numbers of COVID cases in the city as well as the abrupt shift to remote learning for some schools, including hers.

“There’s more to consider here than staffing – there’s health to be considered and then, you know, all the last-minute changes and how it’s affecting our parents and no one knows what’s going on. It’s been insane,” she said. “This is not the way to handle things.”

The partial reopening comes amid a spike in cases of COVID in Philadelphia, which is making it difficult to staff schools, and despite a call from the teachers and principals unions for a week of virtual instruction to mitigate the spread. 

In the last two weeks, 38% of COVID tests in the city have come back positive, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. In that time period, Philadelphia has been averaging 2,654 new cases per day.

Despite the surge, Superintendent William Hite reiterated the district’s position that in-person learning is best for students. “One thing remains clear – in-person learning is essential for the physical, social, emotional and academic well-being of our students, especially after nearly two years of trauma caused by the pandemic and other matters.”

It wasn’t clear Tuesday how many students or teachers were absent. Monica Lewis, a district spokesperson, could not provide that data. The union said “multiple schools” had 10 or more staff members leave after testing positive for COVID.

Sarah Caswell, a teacher at Lincoln High School, said she waited 90 minutes to get a COVID test, part of weekly staff testing. Out of a staff of 240, only 35 had been tested by the time she got in line during her third period of the day. By that time, eight or nine staff members had tested positive. 

“By the end of the day, there were well over 15 positive cases of the staff alone,” she said. 

The last minute decision-making was nerve-wracking, said Jeannine Payne, principal of Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. “It was a wild ride,” she said about checking and rechecking emails Monday night. 

“Are they going to close us, they said they were doing a list, trying to let the parents know, sending out an email to staff, constantly refreshing, waking up to find out four more schools were closed and wondering if we were one of them.” 

Masterman stayed open, and she said the day went fairly smoothly, with near normal student attendance. But she worries about Wednesday, when the staff is tested for COVID.

“We could lose teachers throughout the course of the day. I’m anxious about that,” she said.

Officials at the city’s health department, who have supported in-person learning, have said schools are not a significant source of COVID spread.

James Garrow, a health department spokesperson, said the department’s contact tracing is extensive. He said two-thirds of people said their exposure was to someone in their household or immediate circle, while 7% cited their employment, 2% travel and the rest – nearly a quarter – said social gatherings or “other.” 

He said that exposure in school is listed as “employment,” and that all students are counted that way, with their occupation recorded as “student.”

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, however, said “massive” staffing shortages caused by COVID cases or exposure have “made functioning nearly impossible” and have affected “every facet of a school’s operation — from teachers, to paraprofessionals supporting students with special needs, to lunchroom staff, to secretaries, to nurses, to climate staff, to administrators.” 

In a survey of building representatives, which had responses from 157 of the district’s 216 schools, 90% reported staffing shortages, according to the union. 

Fatim Byrd, the PFT building representative at the 1,700-student Mayfair Elementary School, said that 34 of 100 teachers have COVID, are quarantined or awaiting test results. It was one of the schools that shifted to remote instruction for the week.

“We don’t have a real cleaning staff any more, four of our cleaning staff left,” he said. 

He also said most people in the building are still using cloth masks, which are less effective than medical masks. “The district should be giving us N95 masks,” he said. “We’ve had dozens and dozens of classes quarantined before it got to this.”

Amy Roat, a union representative at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences, found out her school would be remote from an email sent by her principal at 11:23 p.m. 

She said that most of her students got the message that school was closed – no families showed up at the building – and that most logged on to Google classroom. But she didn’t see the point of requiring teachers to go to the buildings.

“I’m in a toasty room, the lights are on, I’m charging my computer,” she said. “I could be doing that at home.” 

She also feared the potential exposure of traveling to and from the school.

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, an advocacy group, issued a statement calling for the City Council to conduct hearings about how the district has handled reopening schools after the winter break. 

“This is yet another instance of the disregard on the part of the administration for the needs of parents and families,” said APPS leader Lisa Haver. “The decision should have been made way sooner than this.” 

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