Ahead of a likely in-person September return to school, more than 6,300 Philadelphia educators weighed in on what reopening school might look like.
School-based staff — who expressed concern about reopening under any circumstances before a COVID-19 vaccine is developed — overwhelmingly believe a hybrid model will work best when the 2020-21 school year opens. Many support a staggered schedule where groups of students return on various days of the week; most believe the Philadelphia School District must make provisions for immunocompromised staff and students to work and learn remotely.
And while some teachers think bringing children back into brick-and-mortar locations in September is of utmost importance, others were less sure.
“Teachers WILL die if schools reopen too early,” one teacher wrote in the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers survey compiled this month and released Tuesday. “Students WILL get exposed and potentially [suffer] long-term consequences of the virus we don’t yet know enough about.”
Opening schools amid COVID-19 will be tricky for schools around the world, but large districts that educate significant numbers of low-income children face specific hurdles, said Jerry Jordan, PFT president.
“We had challenges before there was a pandemic — concerns about basic things, like building cleanliness, soap, hand sanitizer. There has been a shortage of cleaners,” said Jordan.
The union sent the survey to its 13,000 members — including teachers, classroom assistants, nurses, counselors, and other school workers — to gauge concerns and ideas as school and city officials plan the eventual return to buildings; 6,325 responded.
Questions abound: How will students in already-overcrowded schools implement social distancing? Where will children eat lunch, and pass in hallways? How will children whose families struggle to buy school uniforms provide masks, too?
“It seems obvious that class size reductions would be an absolute minimum requirement,” one teacher said in the survey. “To allow minimally six feet of personal space, the average room will contain only 10 to 12 students — in early primary grades, even fewer because of more random movement.”
Class sizes currently cap at 30 in Philadelphia’s early grades, with 33 students permitted in higher grades.
School staff expressed significant concerns about their most vulnerable students, including children with special needs.
“Autistic students with sensory issues will not wear masks,” one teacher said.
“I am concerned about the implementation for our youngest and special education students,” another wrote. “How do you teach phonics and oral language with a mask on?"
Whenever they return to school, students will need more access to more mental health services, teachers said; the pandemic has traumatized young people who already struggled with trauma.
If health officials recommend students do not share materials, that will be an issue for the cash-strapped district, where students share books, gym equipment, musical instruments, and other items.
“If students are to come to specialists’ rooms, there will be 150+ students circulating through my room in a day,” one teacher wrote. “Students will also be sharing a variety of materials and it is unrealistic that I will be able to sanitize all materials between classes and at the end of day.”
Staff offered suggestions for returning to school. One proposal: staggered schedules, with some students coming in Mondays and Wednesdays and others Tuesdays and Thursdays, with Fridays online for children and staff, allowing for buildings to be deep-cleaned. Another possibility is a morning/afternoon schedule with children rotating in.
Some suggested prioritizing opening schools for elementary students, who struggle more with remote learning, and “requiring more rigorous and sustained distance learning for students who can be home alone."
“If staggered or shortened schedules are considered, how will this impact parents who work full time and are not able to stay home with their child every other day, or for half the school day? What procedures will be in place to provide supervision for students who are not picked up/dropped off on the correct day or at the correct time?” another teacher asked.
Staff were concerned with many students lacking internet access and wanted to know how health guidelines will be enforced once children return to buildings.