Some Philadelphia public school students will be eligible to return to classrooms in late February, nearly a full year after COVID-19 shut buildings — but before teachers are fully vaccinated.
About 9,000 prekindergarten through second-grade students can come back two days a week beginning Feb. 22, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Wednesday.
Their teachers are expected to report Feb. 8 to begin preparations for in-person learning.
Many of Philadelphia’s 120,000 students are low-income, have special needs, are English-language learners, or vulnerable in other ways, and the pandemic has hit them especially hard, meaning a safe return to school is imperative, Hite said.
“Escalating violence and feelings of isolation are all tragic consequences of the pandemic, further threatening the health and well-being of our young people,” he said. “Resuming in-person learning opportunities is a crucial step to help restore a much-needed sense of familiarity, community, and connectedness for students and families.”
It will be the district’s third attempt at a return to buildings. Over the summer, Hite said the school year would begin with students eligible to spend two days in school if their families chose that option; that plan was scrapped after intense pushback from parents and teachers. Then, a return was scheduled for Nov. 30, but a COVID-19 surge halted that restart. There are no guarantees this time, either.
Reaction to the new plan was swift and mixed.
Teachers were largely wary. Some parents are upset they can’t send their young children back because they opted for a full virtual model and are locked into that choice for now. And others are eager for children to return as soon as possible.
Lynn Watson, whose son attends AMY Northwest, is disappointed Semaj, a sixth grader, can’t return in February. It’s his first year at the middle school, and he’s never met most of his classmates or any of his teachers.
“Some kids need more hands-on learning,” said Watson. “My son cooperates better when he’s in school.”
Parents were asked in the fall about returning their kids to school. At the time, two-thirds of eligible families chose to keep their children learning at home.
At most schools, kids opting for the hybrid model will attend school either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. All students will be fully remote on Wednesdays.
The return only applies to students whose families opted for in-person learning in the fall, when the district intended to return kids to buildings in late November. Parents who wanted to keep their students fully remote in the fall but have changed their minds will have to wait until more children are phased in to switch from virtual to hybrid learning, the district said.
The superintendent has said he will prioritize students with special needs, young people in career and technical education programs, and kids learning English as more students are brought back to classrooms, but no dates have been announced for when those children might return. Determinations will be made based on lessons learned from the prekindergarten through second grade reopening, he said.
Hite’s timetable and a widespread COVID-19 vaccine shortage mean teachers will be asked to return before they have received a single dose of the vaccine.
Officials said this week they will work with a health-care partner to make vaccines available to Philadelphia teachers regardless of where they live, but those plans are not firm, and the vaccine won’t be available to them for weeks. Employees who work directly with prekindergarten through second grade, about 9,000 workers in all, will be prioritized in those inoculations.
“We will continue to advocate for district staff to have access to the vaccine as soon as possible,” Hite said. “While taking the vaccine will not be mandatory for staff, we hope as many people as possible choose to get vaccinated when they are able to, as an extra layer of safety for themselves and others around them.”
Hite and Gail Carter-Hamilton, pediatric resource manager with the Philadelphia Department of Health, stressed that mitigation protocols will be in place to keep those in schools safe — masking, frequent handwashing, extra cleaning, health screenings.
“We believe it is safe for children to return to school,” said Carter-Hamilton. She said that of the 200 city private and parochial schools that have returned to in-person instruction, there have been 19 cases of in-school spread.
The plans are further complicated by the district’s significant environmental issues. Some Philadelphia schools have no mechanical ventilation at all. Opened windows and fans will be used to circulate air in some cases.
District leaders said no room or school will be used if it’s not safe.
Make no mistake: Reopening will likely have hiccups, Hite said. Classrooms, isolated schools, or the entire system may have to close again if outbreaks occur.
“Our school leaders have planned ahead for these circumstances and are ready to support smooth transitions between hybrid and digital learning models when needed,” added Hite. “We must all be prepared for and expect these changing realities, and be flexible and patient with one another as we navigate them together.”
Several members of City Council attended Wednesday’s virtual news conference, a week after many publicly called for the district to bring students back.
Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said although “this is not going to be easy,” school is the safest place for students, and Hite had made the right call.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said Wednesday he has “serious concerns” about the February return and does not have enough information about building conditions to definitively tell his members it’s safe to return to work in school buildings.
“I need assurances that schools are safe, and I don’t have them yet,” Jordan said. “Our goal is for kids to be able to go back and for staff to be able to go back, but they need to go back to schools that are safe.”
Jordan declined to say what would happen if Hite insisted on a return to school before teachers are vaccinated. In Chicago, the teachers’ union has told its members to stay home, defying a district order to report to work, in a standoff over building conditions. The school system there has suspended in-person classes over the dispute, and a strike is possible.
Jordan also wants teachers to be fully vaccinated before returning to buildings.
Classes have been remote for nearly a year, Jordan said, and teachers have established routines. Why not keep them in place “a little bit longer, until we can get the vaccine and resolve all of the questions regarding building conditions?”
Hite said that if all teachers and school staff were to be fully vaccinated or offered vaccinations before returning to school — 19,000 employees in all — reopening might not happen at all this school year.
Eric Hitchner, who works at Building 21, a district high school, doesn’t yet have a return-to-work date. But the idea of going back to school without a vaccine is worrisome, he said.
“The new strain has got me pretty freaked out, and we’re this close to getting a vaccine,” said Hitchner. “It strikes me as a bad time to go back.”