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Philadelphia School District and city officials had hoped to keep public schools open amid the spread of coronavirus, they said Friday, but were foiled by decisions made by Gov. Tom Wolf and leaders of suburban counties.
The news came as Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced that city schools would close from Monday through March 27 despite officials’ reluctance to do so.
“Our children are always safer in schools, because that’s the one place they get shelter, they get meals, they get health care, they get safety, and so that is the place where we wanted them to be,” Hite said at a Friday news conference.
“The question really is, ‘Why did Montgomery County decide to close? Why did the governor decide to close …?' ” said Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director. Abernathy, Hite, and Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, pointed out that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines indicate children are safe in schools.
With more than 120,000 students in 215 schools, Philadelphia’s school district is by far the largest in the state and is among the country’s biggest. Roughly three-quarters of its students live in poverty.
Wolf, at a news conference Friday night, said he understood the concerns of Mayor Jim Kenney, Hite, and Abernathy, and said the state has “offered to work with Philadelphia to do what we can to support them.”
Wolf said the state could, for instance, explore providing support for meals or counseling.
The closure decision created problems for parents like Yolanda Coleman, a single mother of four children ages 7 to 21, who said she wasn’t sure how she was going to pay her bills and take care of her children at the same time.
“School is where my kids go so I can make my money,” said Coleman, who lives in North Philadelphia and has children at Community College of Philadelphia, Waring Elementary, and George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science. “I have nowhere to keep them while I go to work every morning.”
Unlike students in wealthier districts, many Philadelphia students lack the technology to learn remotely. Hite said that staff would be directed to prepare packets with 10 days of work for students, and that packets could be picked up at city recreation centers and other points to be determined.
Staff will work through the weekend to come up with plans to distribute free meals and keep children active at recreation centers and other points throughout the city, Abernathy said.
Hite said the district would continue to pay employees through the shutdown, and Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera indicated he would waive requirements that schools have 180 days of instruction to receive state funding.
Sixty-three Philadelphia schools were closed Friday after Montgomery County ordered its schools shut; the affected schools were those where 15% or more of the staff lived in Montgomery County.
For those schools that were open, Friday was a strange and unsettling day, with widespread staff shortages and half-empty classes, conditions Robin Cooper, the president of the city principals’ union, said were “unstable and unsafe.” Some schools had no nurses, and others operated with no substitute teachers.
Jerry Jordan, president of the teachers’ union, said Friday was characterized by “mass absences and truly chaotic situations in schools.”
Staff were forced to place large numbers of students in school auditoriums, despite the city’s discouragement of large-group gatherings for public health reasons. Some schools lack hot water, soap, and paper towels in student bathrooms, and though the district brought in some hand sanitizer, staff were alarmed that it contained no alcohol.
They also dealt with students nervous about a global pandemic.
“We are trying to answer kids’ questions but feel unable to fully calm their nerves or answer the questions they have related to school,” one elementary schoolteacher said. She declined to be identified, saying she feared retribution.
Teachers and other school staff expressed widespread frustration that some schools were open and others closed, and about how the message was communicated.
Some families whose children attend schools closed on Friday didn’t discover the closures until students showed up to locked buildings.
Charlie McGeehan, a teacher at the U School, a public school in North Philadelphia, was one of many educators who said they thought the decision to keep some schools open on Friday was “ridiculous.”
“Rather than an abundance of caution, we’re seeing an absence of reason and care,” McGeehan said on Twitter.
Other school staff said they thought the decision to keep most Philadelphia schools open Friday disregarded concerns about their health and the health of vulnerable Philadelphians.
After the call was made to close schools, some parents were relieved, but were wondering what the next two weeks would bring.
Tammy Murphy, 42, a public health professional who works from home in East Falls, said she supported the decision to shut schools for two weeks and said she’d rely on her background as a teacher to create lesson plans and keep her child, a fifth grader at Masterman, busy.
But she did have some concerns.
“I’m used to quiet,” Murphy said. “My personal sanity is going to be challenged, for sure.… It’ll be an adjustment.”