Over 35,000 Philadelphia students are eligible to return to classes on Monday for the first time in 15 months. But the vast majority have said they prefer to remain virtual.
Only about 6,800 sixth through ninth graders and young people with complex needs in grades 10-12 opted into in-person learning two days a week — about 18% of those who have the right to come back.
That 82% of students in that age bracket are choosing to learn from behind computer screens is not an anomaly; district-wide, 73% of those invited to return to Philadelphia School District classrooms are choosing to stay home, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said at a news conference Thursday.
Students in prekindergarten through second grade returned between March 8 and April 5, depending on the school and students in grades three through five were eligible to return April 26. Most high school students will not be eligible to return at all this school year.
Hite, who runs a district of almost 120,000 students, has said that he intends to bring children back for five full days of instruction in the fall, though he has stopped short of a guarantee. (If any classroom distancing requirements remain, for instance, the sheer volume of students at some schools would mean not everyone could fit in buildings at the same time. Northeast High, for instance, has over 3,000 students.)
The reasons for the low in-person opt-in rate are myriad, officials say: For the sixth through ninth graders permitted to return Monday, going back means less than 10 days of in-person instruction before grades are finalized and the interruption of a hard-won, if imperfect, routine developed over a challenging school year. In some cases, the slow rollout was tough for parents who needed consistent child care for younger children, and older siblings were needed at home to keep an eye on younger ones.
Many in the community are also wary of the district’s old buildings, with their history of environmental problems and officials’ broken promises.
Returning in person also means the difference between taking state exams and an automatic pass for kids in grades three through eight. At the Biden administration’s behest, Philadelphia is administering standardized tests for in-person learners in those grades. (Harrisburg offered the option of pushing back exams until the fall, but Hite said that would be more disruptive, though high school Keystone Exams will be given in the fall.)
Hite has repeatedly reminded families of their right to opt children out of exams, but said opt-out rates are no higher than typical.
“We have to make a good-faith effort to administer exams,” the superintendent said. “We aren’t using state assessment info for high school selection, we’re not using it for teacher evaluations, we’re not using it for any of the high-stakes decisions that it’s been used for in the past.”
Hite also said Thursday that the district would work with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to offer vaccines to youth ages 12-15, and keep up the efforts once vaccinations are available for younger children.
“We’re going to push for everybody to get the vaccine,” Hite said. “We can’t require it, but we will push in the form that it’s available, making sure that individuals have access to the vaccine, making sure that individuals are aware about it.”
In total, 55% of district staff have been vaccinated to date, Hite said. The school system offered vaccines at sites around the city.
The district is in talks now with CHOP to set up vaccination sites for youth, likely not at schools but at city health centers and established medical facilities, Hite said.
Officials on Thursday also said the district mental health hotline established a year ago is helping. The Philly HOPELine, paid for with a $250,000 donation and operated by the city-based Uplift Center for Grieving Children, has fielded 281 calls since launching last May.
Most, about 40% of the calls, have come from student caregivers struggling with ways to support their children, said Darcy Walker Krause, Uplift’s executive director. The others have come from students themselves, mostly middle and high school-aged kids, and from school staff and other community members looking to support students.
Early in the pandemic, many calls were about isolation, anxiety, and loneliness, Krause said. A year in, there are more requests for help with the fallout from gun violence and racial trauma, though anxiety calls persist, she said.
In one recent call, a grandmother called about one of her grandchildren, who was suddenly withdrawn, having trouble sleeping and having nightmares. After talking with an Uplift clinician, the grandmother was able to help her grandchild realize the loss of a classmate to gun violence was a trigger that made her feel fresh grief over the long-ago loss of her own mother.
“Grief is a lifelong journey and does not have a set timeline or end point,” Krause said.
The Uplift staffer offered resources and made a plan with the grandmother, and the child said she felt relieved at making the connection. The girl said she started to feel better.
“Our grief is a long road, but we know we can travel it together,” the grandmother told Uplift.