School districts across the Philadelphia region are scrambling to adjust their plans for instruction when the school year resumes next week, as coronavirus cases fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant surge to heights not seen at any other point during the pandemic.
Several school districts are considering whether to postpone their students’ return to the classroom, and two in South Jersey told families that instruction will be fully remote to start the year: Camden City School District is postponing its in-person return for two weeks, and Pennsauken Public Schools will be virtual for the first week of January.
A handful of other districts, including Cheltenham, have warned parents that a pause on in-person learning is a possibility and that they plan to consult with medical experts and decide by the end of the week. More than a dozen public school superintendents in Montgomery County are scheduled to meet virtually Thursday with county health officials to review infection data and assess their plans.
The School District of Philadelphia, the region’s largest system, still plans to resume in-school instruction Tuesday. In a letter last week to parents, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the district is committed to keeping its doors open “as long as we can do so safely.” He announced that students and staff who don’t comply with the district’s mask mandate will be sent home for the day.
District spokesperson Monica Lewis said Wednesday that officials are working closely with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health but that the reopening plan has not changed.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia also intends to resume in-person instruction for its schools next week, with a mask mandate still in place, it said Wednesday.
As the omicron variant of the coronavirus has collided with the spread of the delta variant, Philadelphia has seen a record number of new cases over the last week and high positivity rates have been reported across Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. Doctors say the latest surge appears to be less deadly, but health officials still worry a high number of infections could overwhelm already-taxed health-care systems.
The wave of infections is also presenting a new challenge for both public and private school officials already grappling with staffing shortages and testing challenges likely to be exacerbated by in-school transmission.
Some districts are taking other steps to slow the spread of the virus. Woodbury City Public Schools in Gloucester County will operate on a half-day schedule for the first week of January, in part to avoid students removing their masks during lunchtime. Other districts are limiting extracurricular activities; the Coatesville Area School District said it paused its boys’ basketball season after “multiple” coronavirus cases.
Other districts are moving ahead with in-person instruction plans and even eliminating some mitigation strategies.
In Bucks County, Neshaminy School District Superintendent Rob McGee told parents Tuesday that masks will continue to be optional and that he is recommending the school board approve a plan that eliminates contact tracing, saying it’s “logistically problematic.”
“The more important metric is what happens after children contract COVID,” he said. “If the answer continues to be ‘mild’ symptoms, then our schools can continue to operate normally.”
Most school officials receive guidance from county and state health officials but ultimately make their own decisions on mitigation strategies and whether to educate students remotely or in-person.
Health officials in Montgomery County don’t intend to tell school districts whether they should or should not pause in-person instruction but instead regularly provide them with data and context to make their own decisions, said Richard Lorraine, medical director for the county’s Office of Public Health. He said students and staff should wear masks and he urged all who are unvaccinated and eligible to get immunized.
Lorraine said a couple of districts in the county are considering virtual-only instruction next week, but from his perspective, “there is no right answer to this one.”
“If you continue with appropriate mitigation strategies, it’s not unreasonable to allow the kids to come back at the normal time period,” but if a district decides remote learning is the best option, he said, “we would support that as well.”
The Philadelphia district’s reassurances mirror the messages other large school systems have sent parents amid the wave of coronavirus cases. On Tuesday, New York City school officials announced that students there would return in-person and that they will double the amount of random testing to more quickly detect outbreaks.
But testing of students isn’t as frequent in Philadelphia, said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan. In an interview Wednesday, the union chief said that while students “learn best in their classrooms,” the district should return to virtual learning if it does not improve its mitigation strategies.
Specifically, he called for the district to provide high-quality masks to all students and staff and to more routinely test all students, whether or not they are symptomatic. The district’s current plan is to test students who exhibit symptoms.
“The district needs to put effective mitigation strategies in place for schools to be safe for children and for staff,” Jordan said. “And if they are not able to do that, then there is a need to go virtual until such time as the district can make sure that buildings are safe.”
All the uncertainty presents a challenge for parents weary after watching their children spend months learning through a screen. Emily Simpson, whose children are in second and fifth grade in Cheltenham, said she’s glad school administrators there gave parents a heads-up that they may go virtual next week.
But she’s “hoping like crazy” the district decides to bring kids back in person.
“I appreciate that they are in a very difficult position, the decision-makers in all of this,” she said. “The fact is: It’s impossible to plan when you don’t know what we’re planning for. It’s a very different scenario being remote for a week, or indefinitely.”