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Union scoffs at new COVID guidance as Philly schools go virtual for snow

Nancy King’s son Drew walking in the snow.
The Philadelphia area is expected to get 1 to 3 inches of snow overnight. Schools will go virtual Friday.
David Handschuh for Chalkbeat

Philadelphia schools took the unusual step of announcing a full day in advance that it will go virtual Friday as the area is expected to get 1 to 3 inches of snow overnight.

This comes as the Policy Lab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, or CHOP, and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health put out new K-12 guidance Thursday that calls for in-person learning during the current surge that has caused staffing shortages across the district.

The new guidance advises students and staff who test positive to be allowed to return to school five days after symptoms occur, if their symptoms disappear or are resolving, rather than the prior 10-day quarantine recommendation. Testing of asymptomatic students will end. Universal masking in schools will remain.

The district also follows guidance by the city’s health department and the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC updated its isolation and quarantine guidance recently for the general public, shortening the recommended time for isolation. Ten percent of a school’s staff and students now must test positive for a school to close, up from 3%.

School officials have been slammed with criticism for not going remote in the wake of growing COVID numbers and staffing shortage. Since Monday, the district closed 92 schools for in-person learning.

The school district told Chalkbeat that it does not plan to extend remote learning after Friday’s virtual day.

“The decision for virtual learning taking place district-wide tomorrow was made because of the impending inclement weather. The decision was not made because of COVID-related matters. The district will, as we have stated the last two days, continue to provide updates daily about the need to implement virtual learning for schools experiencing COVID-related staffing issues,” said district spokesperson Monica Lewis.

Members of the teachers union expressed disappointment over CHOP’s new guidance, saying they were “deeply concerned.”

“We are encouraged that CHOP continues to recommend universal masking, regardless of vaccination status. Recent research shows that the use of a high-quality (approved KF94, KN95, or N95) mask — or at the very least, a double mask of combined surgical/cloth variety is absolutely essential; and in fact, PDPH recommends this approach. But the reality is that these resources are not provided to schools. Roughly 35% of schools have reported lack of mask supplies, and those that have masks are certainly not of the KF94, KN95, or N95 variety. And, double masking is certainly not taking place or being recommended” systematically. “As such, we are even more concerned by CHOP’s ‘mask to stay’ guidance,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Over the past two weeks, cases and hospitalizations in Philadelphia have skyrocketed, with 29,882 Philadelphians diagnosed with COVID. The city is now seeing an average of 3,108 new cases per day, by far the highest number in the pandemic, according to Philadelphia Health Secretary Dr. Cheryl Bettigole.

It’s unlikely that testing can be increased, Bettigole said, because there’s a national shortage of test kits.

The CDC updated its guidance Tuesday night to include schools, said James Garrow, communications director for the city’s health department. “Our staff are currently reviewing the guidance in the context of Philadelphia schools and may update it as soon as they are comfortable with the new guidance.”

By Wednesday, the city was recording over 3,000 cases per day — a spike from 200 in November. And though the number of children between the ages of 5 to 11 who have received one vaccination shot has increased from 9% to 27.1%, there’s still concern about access to the shots.

The low vaccination number for the age group is the reason why Councilwoman Helen Gym is asking the district to bring vaccine clinics to every school, in addition to increasing access to personal protective equipment, expanding testing at schools, and investing in expanding support for school nurses.

“It is not enough to say we want schools to open. We must deliver a plan to guarantee that schools can stay open. What we saw this week was as much a crisis of confidence in our leadership as it was a crisis of public health,” Gym said.

All district buildings will be closed including the Family Technology Support Centers, Specialized Services Regional Centers, school grab-and-go meal sites and district headquarters at 440 North Broad Street.

In an email, the district said it will continue to monitor staffing data to make school-level decisions daily through the weekend. Initial school-level decisions, it said, for next week based on Friday’s data will be shared on Friday by 4 p.m. Another update will be provided Sunday by 4 p.m.

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