Philadelphia’s youngest public school students can likely return to in-person learning sometime in February, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Thursday.
Families of prekindergarten through second-grade students — more than 32,000 kids, roughly a third of district’s students — will have the option of sending them back to school two days a week on a yet-to-be determined date, though the superintendent said it would probably be next month.
About 10,000 children have signed up to return. Students will have the option to remain fully virtual.
Teachers in those early grades would likely need to return to buildings a week to 10 days before students come back. Based on the city’s current plans, it’s likely educators will have access to the coronavirus vaccine the first or second week in February.
“Our return is not conditioned on vaccines,” Hite said at a Thursday news conference, “however, naturally we support expediting the vaccines.”
Though February is likely for a return for young elementary school children, no dates are firm, Hite said, and the return will be contingent on public health recommendations. Pennsylvania’s Education Department recently issued guidance that said a return to in-person learning should be prioritized for young students, even when COVID-19 cases are high; some private schools and a number of suburban districts are offering hybrid or full in-person options.
After prekindergarten through second graders return, the superintendent said, the district will prioritize other high-needs groups, including English-language learners, special-education students in grades 3-12, and career and technical education students, who require hands-on time with specialized equipment unavailable to them at home.
Philadelphia School District students have not set foot in a classroom since last March. The district’s youngest children were supposed to return in November, but a COVID-19 surge postponed those plans.
The news that some students may begin returning to school buildings in February came as officials also announced they would bring some of the city’s most vulnerable students back to select schools for evaluations later this month.
Six regional centers will open Jan. 25, offering in-person evaluations to determine special-education eligibility only, as required by federal special-education law.
The centers will operate at West Philadelphia High, Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush, Martin Luther King High School, Edison High School, Strawberry Mansion High School, and the High School for Creative and Performing Arts.
About 600 students who can’t effectively participate in virtual assessments will be eligible for appointments at the centers, Hite said. Families can opt out of bringing their students if they don’t feel comfortable with in-person contact.
Center staff will be COVID-19-tested weekly, and parents and children will receive rapid coronavirus tests on site before they undergo assessments.
The centers will remain open indefinitely, and “there is a strong possibility that we will be able to provide additional supports and services to students there,” said ShaVon Savage, the district’s deputy chief for the Office of Specialized Services.