Less than a third of the 32,000 students eligible to return to school on Nov. 30 have opted to come back for face-to-face instruction, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Thursday.
Still, the Philadelphia School District is making plans for buildings to reopen to teachers Nov. 16 and for children to return at the end of the month, said Hite, joined at a news conference with Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley.
The news comes despite a state recommendation that based on the current level of COVID-19 cases, schools should shift to or remain fully virtual.
Other districts are remaining open despite the numbers, Farley and Hite said, stressing that the state’s information was guidance, not a mandate.
“We think that in-person education for our children is extremely important, and we think we should do it, even if the risk isn’t zero,” Farley said.
In the almost eight months since the pandemic began, no city children have died from COVID-19, Farley said. Seven have died from gun violence. He also noted that 90% of coronavirus deaths in the city have come in people 60 or above.
“Kids need to be learning for their future,” the health commissioner said.
Farley said the city was considering restricting other “high-risk” activities he did not specify, but not in-person schooling.
Hite stressed that science and safety will guide the ultimate call on whether to reopen buildings, acknowledging that a virus surge could ultimately keep everyone at home.
“These things change so dramatically, there may come a time when we have to make a different recommendation,” the superintendent said.
Of the 95 charter, parochial, and independent schools now open for in-person instruction in the city, many have seen COVID-19 cases, Farley said.
“With high community rates, we expect that,” he said.
Transmission appears to have occurred outside the school in all but three instances, Farley said — sometimes in instances such as carpools, sleepovers, and other social gatherings.
“We had four teachers that went to a wedding together and all of them got infected and tested positive afterward,” he said.
Hite on Wednesday night told the district’s prekindergarten through second-grade teachers they would not have to report to school Monday as planned. He said the decision was related not to the COVID-19 surge but to the fact that the school system was still figuring out exactly who needs to report to buildings.
Families opting for in-person education varied widely by school, Hite said — at some schools, fewer than 1% of families want to send their children back, and at others, it was more than 90%.
Some schools will likely not reopen based on those rates, and in other cases, some classes might be all-virtual while others follow the hybrid model, with some children in buildings and some at home. The district should have decisions made next week about who needs to go into buildings, the superintendent said.
Before Hite made the call to delay teachers’ return, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said he believes schools are not safe for teachers or students based on the virus surge. The union has also expressed concerns about building readiness, particularly ventilation inside the district’s old, historically environmentally problematic buildings.
Based on a memorandum of understanding signed by the PFT and district, both sides have a say in cleaning standards and reopening conditions. If they disagree, a neutral third party must step in to mediate.