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Philadelphia schools could be mask-optional starting March 9

An older woman, wearing a filtered mask and blue Cayuga Elementary School shirt, stands in the window of a classroom door. Student artwork adds color to the wooden door she is standing behind.

The Philadelphia school district could be mask-optional starting March 9.

Hannah Beier for Chalkbeat

Wearing a mask will be optional for all students and staff starting March 9 if the city’s health department determines that COVID case counts remain low, the Philadelphia school district announced Wednesday. 

Due to federal regulations, universal masking would still be required for all prekindergarten Head Start students and staff. All students and staff also will be required to wear a mask the week after the district returns from spring break, which is April 18 to April 22.

“Employees and people entering indoor spaces still have the right to wear masks. As we’ve done throughout the pandemic, please give each other the gift of understanding that we can’t know another person’s circumstances,” said Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole on Wednesday.

Bettigole said the health department is looking at four local metrics to determine its response level, including cases, hospitalizations, the percentage of tests that come back positive, and the rate of rise in cases. For now, all district staff and students are still required to wear masks. 

The move follows a recent announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that masks can be removed in school unless hospitalizations and case counts are high. Other school districts nationwide with mask mandates have said they will consider making masks optional. In New York City, the mayor said a mask mandate could end next week; a final decision will be made this week. In Detroit, the superintendent said the district would consider ending its mandate after spring break.

In Philadelphia schools following shortened isolation and quarantine guidelines, students who return five days after testing positive also must wear a well-fitted mask in school except while eating and drinking during lunch. Schools must set up a separate area for those students to eat and drink for days six to 10.

“Some people will continue to wear masks. Others will not. I ask that you thoughtfully consider your personal situation and family circumstances, and do what is best for you or your child – and please respect everyone else’s right to do the same, even if their choice differs from yours,” Superintendent William Hite said Wednesday.

The district still asks students to stay home if they are sick, get tested if they are showing symptoms of COVID, isolate themselves if they have been exposed to COVID, and quarantine if they test positive.

Wednesday’s announcement comes two days after school officials said the district will end all mandatory testing of vaccinated staff and cut back testing of unvaccinated employees from twice to once a week. That change for staff will start March 14, with testing for vaccinated employees still available for those who want it until March 25. For unvaccinated employees, testing will be once a week.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that he agreed with the new policy. “With the sharp decline of COVID cases, we will continue to monitor it,” he said. 

Bettigole noted there’s still room for concern with the virus. As of yesterday, the city reported an average of 87 new cases of COVID per day. While this number is only about 2% of what the health department saw during the omicron peak, it’s still about three times higher than the lows from last summer before the delta wave.

“Things may change,”  Bettigole said during Wednesday’s COVID update. “We are continuing to look at our metrics and try to refine and make things better, more stronger and useful. But of course we could get hit with another variant, so keep your masks somewhere. COVID is still here, it’s at a much lower rate and we think that it’s safe to do this.”
Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at jcalhoun@chalkbeat.org

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