Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday that they are planning for a full, in-person reopening of all Philadelphia School District buildings when classes for the next academic year begin Aug. 31.
The pledge came with the public backing of all five district unions, including the powerful Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. It hinges on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removing recommendations for any social distancing inside classrooms, officials said.
It would be the first time since March 2020 that buildings are open for all 120,000 district students. Though schools are now open for in-person instruction two days a week for students in prekindergarten through ninth grade, only 27% of district families opted to send their children back into classrooms. And those who did return had only a few months or weeks of face-to-face learning, depending on their grade.
“We all assure that as best we can, we’re going to work together to get children back to school five days a week,” Hite said at Spring Garden Elementary in North Philadelphia.
The declining COVID-19 test positivity rate, increasing vaccination rates, and relaxing of coronavirus restrictions in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia led officials to make the announcement, Hite said.
Kenney said he’s “very optimistic” that reopening will happen, spurring further economic recovery for the city. He acknowledged how difficult school closures were, particularly for caregivers and children, who often struggled being physically removed from school.
“After a long year of isolation, they’ll be able to go to school with their friends and their teachers,” Kenney said. “Together, we made it through, and in the fall, district students will finally be able to go to school five days a week.”
Officials said they expect the CDC to issue updated school guidance in the coming weeks. If the current 3-foot distancing guidelines remain, some schools physically would not have the space to accommodate all students.
Hite said Philadelphia schools will offer a fully virtual option to families that are uncomfortable with in-person instruction. That’s in contrast to New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy said schools won’t offer an all-digital option in the fall.
Philadelphia teacher feedback indicates that “hybrid instruction is not ideal, or not a sustainable option, and so will not be offered next year,” Hite said. The superintendent said the district would collect feedback on parent, staff, and student concerns and hopes for the coming school year through an online survey and focus groups.
Jerry Jordan, the PFT president, threw his full support behind the move to reopen.
“We do endorse the returning of students and staff to five days per week in September,” Jordan said at the news conference. “We believe that it’s really important to have in-person instruction.”
He said the PFT would work to ensure that the district’s buildings were safe for full occupancy. The PFT had to sign off on school buildings before they were opened for instruction, but its calculations cleared only certain classrooms for the small number of students and staff who returned for hybrid instruction.
The PFT, whose contract expires in August, halted prior reopening plans multiple times over concerns with building conditionss, but Jordan said the union’s default position is working toward a full reopening in the fall.
Much remains to be worked out, including whether students and teachers will need to be masked and how teachers who request to continue virtual instruction will be selected.
But one pandemic feature will remain, Hite said: Philadelphia will remain a 1-to-1 district, with every student issued their own computer.
In addition to the social and emotional fallout of the yearlong pandemic, Philadelphia will have to contend with learning loss. Making up work “cannot be done over a summer, or over a school year, for that matter,” Hite said.
Much of the $1.1 billion Philadelphia is receiving in federal relief money will be spent to combat learning loss, with money set aside for vastly expanded summer school, before- and after-school programs, and more.