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While most Philly charters are opening virtually, this school started in person

Discovery Charter is already planning to close in less than two months, during peak flu season. "We just need to see the kids and make sure they have a great foundation,” the school's leader said.

Molly Colbridge, a kindergarten teacher at Discovery Charter School in Philadelphia, speaks to students on their first day of school. New rules are in place due to COVID-19.
Molly Colbridge, a kindergarten teacher at Discovery Charter School in Philadelphia, speaks to students on their first day of school. New rules are in place due to COVID-19.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Donning a face mask decorated with basketballs and his navy and gray school uniform, Daylen Burrell, 7, waited with his family outside Discovery Charter in Parkside on Monday morning. His brother Dallas, 5, clasped his hands in front of him.

Both boys were prepared for their first day of school: the first ever for Dallas, who was starting kindergarten. Daylen was beginning second grade after a spring interrupted by the coronavirus.

Their mother, Teeawana, had “mixed emotions” before the school day began as she waited with her sons, surrounded by staff in masks and face shields checking students in for the start of the year.

“It’s exciting and scary at the same time,” Burrell said. She worries about the ongoing pandemic, but added, “I think kids need social interaction.”

A K-8 charter school, Discovery welcomed its younger students back to classrooms Monday — one of the few public schools in Philadelphia opening for in-person instruction as the district prepares for an all-virtual start Wednesday.

» READ MORE: Philly-area children, parents, and teachers brace for a school year unlike any other

While Philadelphia’s charter schools — which enroll about 70,000, or one-third of public-school students — operate independently of the district, the vast majority have also opted for virtual openings. District officials said recently that 83 of 87 city charters were planning all-virtual instruction.

“A lot of them followed the School District’s lead” after the district announced in late July that it would operate virtually through November, said Scott Peterman, director of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, an advocacy group representing 45 city charters.

A number of charters opened the school year virtually on Monday. At KIPP Philadelphia — which runs six charters that reopened Aug. 24 — CEO Jessica Cunningham Akoto said it was “not an easy decision” to start the school year remotely.

» READ MORE: Hite says as many as 18,000 Philly district students still need internet access, with days to go until the start of school

“We desperately want to open our doors again,” Cunningham Akoto said. But there was a “growing consensus” among both families and staff against reopening in person, she said, and “we wanted to take a slower and thoughtful approach” that would minimize disruption, including in the event of an outbreak.

Even as Discovery Charter reopened Monday, it plans to stay that way for less than two months. The school will shift to virtual learning from Oct. 26 through Jan. 22 during the height of flu season, said CEO Tonia Elmore. She added that “if this coronavirus kicks up really bad,” the school might not resume in person in January.

“We just need to see the kids and make sure they have a great foundation,” Elmore said. She said the school had worked to make parents and staff comfortable with returning to the building, and with the help of grant funding had installed temperature-scanning equipment in hallways and acrylic glass dividers around desks.

While K-5 students return in person four days a week, sixth- through eighth- grade students will mostly learn at home — giving the school space to spread out students, Elmore said. It is also offering a virtual option, chosen for about 150 of 638 students.

All but one teacher has returned to Discovery. “We’re fully staffed,” Elmore said, gesturing toward the school’s parking lot, where teachers awaited the arrival of students.

Among the staff on hand was Stanley Jennings, who walked around in a mask and face shield, holding a cardboard box with more masks.

“Stay your distance, y’all!” he instructed families, some taking photos of their children with their masks and backpacks.

A permanent, in-house substitute teacher — “wherever they need me,” he said — Jennings said he was dedicated to giving students a positive experience.

“I have my feelings about it,” he said of returning to school. “But at the same time, I miss the kids so much.”

For parents like Iaesha Thomas, who had dropped off her son for his first day of kindergarten, the day was “a little emotional.” But “I feel like they have it under control,” she said.

While her older son, a seventh grader at the charter, will start the year virtually, Thomas wanted her younger child to go to kindergarten in person.

“I feel like it’s going to be a good day,” she said, “and, hopefully, a good year.”