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A debate in the Philly suburbs on bringing more students back to classrooms is ‘as political as the presidential election’

As Philadelphia struggles to bring some students back to classrooms for the first time since March, a different discussion is playing out in surrounding districts.

Beth Rosica, of West Chester, is among parents in a number of suburban communities who have been advocating for their school districts to move to five-day in-person instruction.
Beth Rosica, of West Chester, is among parents in a number of suburban communities who have been advocating for their school districts to move to five-day in-person instruction.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

One night in late January, parent Monica Zeitz stood before the Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board and read a petition signed by 331 people asking to fully reopen the district’s schools.

“We will definitely begin that conversation,” responded David Grande, the board’s president, who announced earlier in the meeting that the district would consider a plan to bring elementary students back to school five days a week.

Since then, debate has erupted over the district’s proposal. Parents circulated petitions calling on the board to delay a vote, alarmed by the prospect of adding more children to classrooms before vaccines are widely available. Teachers signed another. Heated posts made the rounds on social media. One woman said neighbors stopped her on the street, trying to change her opinion.

Zeitz, a physician, declined to speak with a reporter, though she reappeared before the school board Monday night. “I’ve been called immoral and despicable,” she told the board.

While the Philadelphia School District struggles to bring some students back to classrooms for the first time since March, a different debate is playing out in the suburbs. Many schools already teaching students in-person part time are grappling with how, and when, to reopen fully — pushed by increasingly frustrated and vocal parents who say their children are languishing in front of laptop screens and could be in schools that have seen little spread of the coronavirus so far.

Others see the demands as premature, worried that reducing the social distancing requirement in classrooms could endanger teachers and community members vulnerable to the virus.

» READ MORE: Philly school superintendent says ‘the time for reopening is now,’ and suggests some buildings could open while others stay closed

“This has really become as political as the presidential election,” said Beth Rosica, a West Chester parent who has been calling for her district to return to full-time in-person classes. Rosica has sought feedback from parents around the region on virtual instruction and has released data from public-records requests that have revealed more students are failing classes this year in her district.

(West Chester Superintendent Jim Scanlon said, “Everybody is struggling with trying to catch kids up,” and added that other parents had filed 37 records requests in the last five weeks — including for his personnel file — which have cost the district thousands to respond to.)

Parents like Lindsay Goldsmith-Markey in Wallingford-Swarthmore said some parents’ worries about their children’s academic progress and mental health shouldn’t overshadow the voices of teachers and others concerned about a full return.

Many children in the district “are actually having quite a number of their educational needs met,” said Goldsmith-Markey, a doctoral student who works with Philadelphia teachers. “There are so many problems that most people in this district, because of their privilege, are not experiencing.”

A number of parents in favor of fuller reopenings said they were advocating not just for their children, but for more disadvantaged students who would benefit from returning to classrooms.

Critics “look at us like a bunch of white suburban stay-at-home moms, that we’re annoyed that we can’t go to the Y for our workout and get Starbucks in the middle of the day. That is not us,” said Rosica, an education and human services consultant. She said lower-income parents would not necessarily have “the luxury of working from home” or time to lobby their school boards.

Evidence suggests many professional parents — those with bachelor’s degrees who are working full time and are disproportionately white — want a return to traditional instruction because they are struggling, “even if they don’t feel they’re allowed to admit it,” said Jessica Calarco, an Indiana University sociologist. In a nationally representative survey of 2,000 parents, Calarco and her coauthors found professional parents were the most likely to report high levels of stress and frustration during the pandemic.

For these parents, “traditional in-person schooling seems like the only way out of the pressure they’re facing right now,” Calarco said. She noted that hybrid models — where students receive a mix of in-person and virtual school — had been particularly stressful for parents, and that families of all backgrounds were more likely to choose to send their children to schools with in-person instruction if the option to do so was full time.

Logan Ranalli, who recently started a Facebook group for fellow Tredyffrin/Easttown School District parents advocating for full in-person instruction, said: “A lot of parents have now gotten to the point where they feel like, ‘My kids are really struggling, and there’s nothing I can do.’ As a parent, that feels horrible.” District parents sent a letter last week to school officials that began: “We are moms, dads, psychologists, teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, and more. And we are bipartisan, mask-wearing, socially distant TE constituents who want our schools fully open now.”

» READ MORE: As schools seek to reopen, here’s what local data say about in-person classes and COVID-19

Many area private schools have reopened fully, and a number of public school districts have also moved to bring students back full time.

But others are waiting. One major sticking point is social distancing. Local public schools generally have followed Pennsylvania and federal recommendations that students be spaced six feet apart. Many districts don’t have the rooms or staff to teach far smaller class sizes than they had before the pandemic.

However, some have adopted less strict spacing measures to return more students to buildings — including in Bucks County, which has advised schools to set three feet, rather than six, as the minimum distance between students. Other area counties have not followed suit.

The state’s largest teachers’ union this week urged Chester County’s Health Department — which also serves Delaware County — not to relax its six-foot standard, arguing that doing so would be an “unnecessary risk.”

“Public officials should not allow arguments about the impracticality of enforcing this standard in schools to justify diluting it,” said Pennsylvania State Education Association president Rich Askey.

Chester County spokesperson Rebecca Brain said schools can consult with the Health Department about lesser spacing “if evidence exists that indicates improvements” in coronavirus cases and transmission. The county is awaiting updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before changing its own, Brain said.

Among the districts that have requested county feedback is Radnor, which has proposed bringing students back five days a week with in-class distances less than six feet. On Thursday, the district said it would begin full in-person instruction for its youngest students later this month. The district’s teachers’ union had asked to delay a full return until its members are vaccinated.

Parents like Anna Moreland, who has been pressing for five-day in-person instruction in Radnor, said other local schools have already proven fuller reopenings can be done safely. “Am I a heartless parent who wants to send people to the gulag? Of course not,” she said. But “we see the challenges our children face every day.”

“Quite frankly, if Radnor can’t get our students back to school five days a week, I don’t think anybody can,” she said.

» READ MORE: A Philly private school got COVID-19 vaccines for its teachers. Then its clinic was canceled.

Schools are “highly dependent on affluent, white families for their resources and reputations,” Calarco said. In large cities like Philadelphia, the district’s size increases the power of the teachers’ union and “reduces the power of privileged parents” who might push a return to in-person school.

In smaller districts, she said, those parents have a great deal of power — a dynamic magnified by the local nature of the school reopening debate.

In Wallingford-Swarthmore, where officials say they could return students close to full time by spacing them no less than three feet apart, residents have been intensely divided.

“What is the science behind this sudden shift to three feet?” said Frannie Reilly, a Wallingford-Swarthmore parent who circulated a petition signed by 650 cautioning against using district schools “as a scientific experiment” and arguing that “our teachers deserve better.”

The parent petition favoring a shift cited guidance from Harvard and Brown Universities and the New America Foundation, identifying three feet as the distancing standard for young students.

David Rubin, director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab, a research group advising area schools, told the Wallingford-Swarthmore board Monday that gauging the risk of spacing people with masks less than six feet apart was “an unanswered question.”

If a school is going to “walk through that threshold,” he said, it should increase other safety measures, like testing students and staff for the virus.

As the board heard from a long list of parents, Grande, the board president, said it would survey all parents before reaching a decision. After knowing how many would commit to fully in-person or fully virtual instruction, the board aims to consider the plan Feb. 22.

“I personally don’t want to make a decision based on dueling petitions and who can collect the most signatures,” Grande said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Beth Rosica filed public-records requests to the West Chester Area School District. Other parents filed the requests; Rosica publicized some of the results.