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For the first time in a year, some Philly schools reopen to student, parent cheers

Most Philly school district students are still learning virtually, but officials said Monday represented a major step forward as pupils returned to some district schools for in-person instruction.

Milan Sutton, a second grader at Overbrook Educational Center, is shown on her first day of in-person learning.
Milan Sutton, a second grader at Overbrook Educational Center, is shown on her first day of in-person learning.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

It didn’t matter that she had to wear a mask, keep six feet apart from her classmates, or eat lunch at a cafeteria table with a clear plastic divider separating her from the single student seated at the same table: Milan Sutton was back inside her classroom at Overbrook Educational Center, and she was pumped.

“It’s more fun to do work at school,” said Milan, 7. “And I get to see my friends.”

Three hundred sixty-one daysafter all Philadelphia School District buildings were last open for in-person learning, the first pupils returned to some district schools Monday.

Mayor Jim Kenney, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and other leaders were on hand to cheer as about 30 prekindergarten through second-grade students streamed into Juniata Park Academy shortly after 8 a.m. Schools are staggering their students; in all, 68 will go back to Juniata Park this week in a hybrid model.

The vast majority of district students are still learning virtually — the total pupil population returning this week represents less than 3% of the district’s 120,000 students.

Still, officials said Monday represented a major step forward.

“Although the pandemic is far from over, beginning to welcome some of our students back is a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel,” Hite said at a news conference in Juniata Park’s all-purpose room.

Kenney said he felt relief to see students going back into buildings.

“I often wondered about our youngest students and their socialization and academics,” Kenney said, adding that they were struggling the most with all-virtual learning.

Families dropping their children off Monday for what Hite stressed was not the first day of school but the first day of in-person learning ranged from nervous to jubilant.

Sunday Rice danced and shouted with glee as she escorted her grandson Karon Blackmon Jr., a second grader at Juniata Park, to the school. The boy was happy, too, so charged up about seeing some peers in person that he got up at 6:30 a.m.

“I am so glad for my grandson to be back at this school,” said Rice, twirling. “Lovely. Lovely! Yes.”

Rice said Karon struggled with virtual learning. He’s smart, but he got distracted easily and didn’t take the work as seriously because it didn’t feel as if he was at school, his grandmother said. And it was tough, with multiple family members working and learning in their multigenerational home.

“They need the in-person interaction,” Rice said of Karon and other young learners.

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The prekindergarten through second-grade reopening is expected to expand to more schools each week through March 22, district officials said — though union officials say it could take longer to return children to buildings, depending on how quickly the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers can pore over environmental safety data about schools, and what the data show.

The district on Monday announced the reopening of 45 more schools on March 15..

The mayor also said he would like to see an extended school year.

Hite has said he expects a “robust” summer program, and an additional marking period, though the superintendent has said summer teaching will be completed by those who volunteer to do so.

The pivot from teaching all students virtually to managing some students in the classroom while some still learn remotely was challenging, said Carla Pinckney-Thompson, a second-grade teacher at Loesche Elementary in the Northeast.

“I’m trying to get used to going between the camera and them,” said Pinckney-Thompson, motioning to the six students in her classroom. Twenty more were learning online. “Ideally, we all want to be here in person, but we want to be safe, too.”

In-person attendance varied across the district. At one school, McCloskey Elementary in East Mount Airy, just one student showed up Monday; at F.S. Edmonds, in the same neighborhood, four students attended in person, the PFT said.

The School District said it didn’t yet know how many students showed up for in-person classes vs. how many were expected Monday.

At Loesche, 900 students are enrolled; 200 were eligible to return in person, and 150 opted to do so. On Monday, 80 students were in the building.

Principal Sherin Philip Kurian couldn’t sleep the night before, she said, but she was pleased with the way things went Monday. “It’s a matter of getting everyone used to the new routine,” Kurian said.

Overbrook Educational Center, which educates both visually impaired students and those without disabilities, enrolls 292 students; 17 were on hand Monday.

Inside Meredith Leon’s second-grade classroom, four students sat at desks with plastic dividers surrounding them.

“Eyes up here, both in the class and at home friends,” Leon called cheerfully as students worked on figuring out how to spell the word destroy, using wipe-off boards and markers. “Create the vowel team! Great job.”

Meredith Foote, the school’s principal, has spent the last weeks giving parents tours, answering questions about personal protective equipment, and troubleshooting last-minute issues. She moved her lunch tables to the gym for more space, and added clear plastic dividers to tables after one family requested them. Foote said many of the school’s parents are growing comfortable with the idea of in-person instruction.

“Things have changed,” Foote said. “Teachers are getting vaccinated, cases are going down.”

The return to in-person school was particularly important for some pupils there with special needs. It’s nearly impossible to learn Braille at home on a computer, and though teachers made binders every two weeks and drove them to students’ homes, there were gaps, Foote said. ”You can’t teach visually impaired kids how to navigate their world through a computer screen,” she said.

» READ MORE: 9,000 Philly teachers have been vaccinated and thousands more are eligible as some schools prepare to open Monday

Monday’s return comes after a tough month, with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers initially blocking a return over concerns about building safety. The mayor, national teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten, and a third-party mediator got involved after PFT president Jerry Jordan directed his members not to report to buildings and Hite threatened disciplinary action against teachers.

Both sides said they are working more closely together, though the union said it still has concerns about cleanliness raised by members who reported to schools last week.

Once the district fully reopens buildings for the prekindergarten through second-grade children whose families signed them up in the fall to return, officials will permit other children in those grades to return if their families want them to.

Hite has said a return to school for children in all grades this year is possible but not assured. He has stressed that he will first prioritize certain groups of students, including children with special needs, English-language learners, and students in career and technical education programs.

After touring several schools Monday, Arthur Steinberg, president of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania and the PFT’s health and welfare fund, said things went “generally smoothly” but there were a few hiccups, mainly around rooms that had not been adequately cleaned.

Steinberg said that he wasn’t sure how many schools the district and PFT will be able to announce next week for a return the following week, but that both sides want “as many kids as want to come back into safe buildings as soon as we can.”