Philadelphia public school students will not return to classrooms until November at the earliest, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Tuesday, after plans for a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction sparked fierce opposition.
Under the new plan, which awaits school board approval, the year would begin fully virtually for 125,000 Philadelphia School District students in September, as confirmed coronavirus cases rise in the region and other districts are also opting to start the year without face-to-face instruction.
Instruction in Pennsylvania’s largest school system would happen via computer at least through the first marking period, which ends Nov. 17. Students would receive instruction from teachers at their assigned school. The previously planned “Digital Academy” model, with teachers from across the district instructing students whose families opted into a 100% digital school year, has been scrapped.
If city health officials and others indicate it is safe to do so, students would then transition to a hybrid learning model.
Initially, Hite called for a school reopening plan that would bring most students back two days a week. That plan received intense pushback — including six hours of impassioned calls from principals, parents, and teachers at a school board meeting last week, and a public rally for fully virtual schools last weekend. Hite ultimately withdrew it.
“I believe it’s important to listen,” Hite said in a letter to the community Tuesday. “And it’s important to have your trust and support as we all try to create a plan that will help our children learn in an environment we have never experienced.”
The school year, once set to begin Aug. 31, will now start Sept. 2.
The school board is scheduled to vote Thursday on the health and safety elements of the revised plan, and on the revised school opening date.
Officials said students will still have access to free school meals throughout the continued building shutdown, as they have since March.
What remains to be seen is how Philadelphia will handle the thousands of children who were not able to connect to the internet when schooling first went remote this spring.
“City leaders are also working with numerous local internet companies to provide reliable internet access to all Philadelphia students who need it for the start of school and throughout the school year,” the district said in a letter to families sent Tuesday.
Hite said this weekend that he does not support a 100% virtual school year, and that if coronavirus conditions improve, he wants teachers and students back in classrooms.
“We will do harm to children if in fact we lose another year without children in front of adults in some form or fashion,” the superintendent said Friday night. “We know that our children who are most at risk suffered the most academically in the spring. As educators, we can do something about that, and we need to do something about that.”
According to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, 74% of the 7,500 teachers, counselors, secretaries, and other school workers who responded to a survey released Tuesday said they felt personally unsafe returning to school buildings. And 78% said they felt returning to school would jeopardize student safety, while just 6% said they felt it would be safe for students to return.
Jerry Jordan, the PFT president, backed the fully virtual school-year opening.
“Never in our lifetimes have we seen a situation like this, and there is no road map for how to navigate so many factors. ... Lives are on the line,” Jordan said in a letter to PFT members.
The district’s announcement comes as a number of other districts make plans to begin the year virtually. Downingtown, Cheltenham, and Norristown have all announced in recent days their intent to keep children out of buildings, at least for now.
“I will not be the superintendent who puts anyone — not one child, not one staff member — in harm’s way,” Norristown Area Superintendent Christopher Dormer said. “I cannot, in good conscience, allow any reopening model that increases the risk of infection, illness, or someone dying.”
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said Tuesday that most elementary school students would return to buildings five days a week, and high school students would begin the year with a hybrid digital and in-person approach.