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102 Philly schools are closed because of COVID-19. At some still open, ‘everything’s not fine’

“I’m a working parent; I understand the needs and concerns of working parents, but nothing will trump my children’s health,” said Shereda Cromwell, parent of a district 10th grader.

Students outside Masterman, at 17th and Spring Garden Streets, on Jan. 4, which is open for in-person learning.
Students outside Masterman, at 17th and Spring Garden Streets, on Jan. 4, which is open for in-person learning.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

With so many staff sickened by or quarantining because of COVID-19, 102 Philadelphia schools can’t safely open for in-person instruction.

That means the omicron surge has closed close to half of the district’s public schools.

But some parents — and many teachers, backed by their union — question the wisdom of keeping the remaining 136 open. A number of Philadelphia schools that have not moved to virtual instruction still cope with high numbers of staff absences, an inability to attract substitute teachers, and in some cases, worried parents keeping children out of school.

Yet Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has been steadfast, backed by Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Policy Lab: Students need not just the structure of in-person school, but in the nation’s poorest big city, many children rely on the district for nutrition and for safety, and the risks of virus infection are not as great as the dangers of closing buildings.

“We are fully committed to keeping our schools open as consistently as possible as long as we have enough staff to support safe and orderly schools,” Hite said Wednesday during a district Facebook Live event.

But Shereda Cromwell isn’t so sure her son’s school is safe or orderly at the moment.

Cromwell sent Aidan, a junior at Franklin Learning Center, to school Monday, after the school had been closed for a week because of staffing concerns. Teachers told him 22 staff remained out that day, and Aidan spent the day in the auditorium.

“It was unorganized,” said Cromwell. “There was little to no learning going on that day.” She hasn’t sent Aidan back, and won’t until she has assurances the staffing levels are better.

“I’m a working parent. I understand the needs and concerns of working parents, but nothing will trump my children’s health,” said Cromwell.

The district’s principals union, which has called for a pause on in-person learning, is weighing in on social media, sharing stories of schools having trouble operating because of COVID-19 cases among staff.

“A North Philadelphia school had 20 teachers/staff out on Monday. Teachers have tested positive in the middle of the day. It is a challenge to staff the classrooms of teachers who test positive when you are stretched so thin. This is taxing,” the principals union said on Twitter.

In Chicago, teachers who were worried about COVID-19 refused to work in person for several days until school officials agreed to more mitigation measures. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has stopped short of a walkout, but President Jerry Jordan has called for a two-week pause to in-person instruction, better masks, and other changes.

» READ MORE: Some COVID-19 recommendations are no longer ‘feasible or practical’ for schools, CHOP says; Philly shifts school-closing threshold

Ami Patel Hopkins, Philadelphia’s deputy education officer when Michael Nutter was mayor and a current district teacher, believes that in-person is best for city students. But not at the moment, said Patel Hopkins, mother to two children too young to be vaccinated, one of whom recently had COVID-19.

Patel Hopkins worries about being in a classroom when the virus is so prevalent, COVID-19 testing is hard to come by, and Philadelphia students receive no asymptomatic testing at school. (In new guidance, CHOP green-lighted discontinuing all asymptomatic testing to make it easier for schools to stay open; Philadelphia still tests all staff weekly.)

“I do not understand why … the city is mandating restaurants to require vaccination proof for indoor dining, but in schools we are seeing a different set of guidelines,” Patel Hopkins said in a letter to the school board, city leaders, and others calling for a pause to in-person learning. She said the district must rely not just on the city’s Health Department and CHOP but also “pediatricians on the ground who have been overwhelmed by COVID.”

At West Philadelphia High, 20 staffers were out at the beginning of last week, and 30 more staffers called out last Wednesday, said Dave Thiebeau, a science teacher there. The handful of West staff who reported to school, bolstered by a contingent of central office employees, split the 100 or so students who did show up into large groups to monitor them.

”We wanted to send a message to say look, we don’t feel this is sustainable or safe,” said Thiebeau. “They say everything looks fine, but everything’s not fine.”

West is now closed for in-person instruction at least through Friday, but there are concerns district wide, Thiebeau said.

Jordan has said he is “deeply concerned” both by the shift in CHOP guidance and the city’s moving the school-closing threshold from 3% of staff and students infected with COVID-19 to 10%, a change public health officials said was appropriate because it was no longer possible to catch outbreaks before they begin.

Abram Taber, the music teacher at Childs Elementary in Point Breeze, where roughly 15 staffers are out this week, is particularly concerned about mask compliance. Though Hite said the district would begin cracking down on its mask policy, sending home students and staff who refuse to comply with mandates, Taber said that hasn’t happened.

A small group of students, mostly in the upper grades, continues to flout the rule, Taber said. “They’ll comply in the moment, and then 30 seconds later, their mask is down at their chin.” District policy requires multiple documented attempts to correct students and call home; Taber said it’s not possible to document every time some people don’t wear their masks, and on top of that, the person at Childs responsible for mask compliance is currently not in the building.

At a district high school operating in person, half the staff is out. And when a fight broke out this week in the hallway, a parent was able to enter the school and join the fray, said a teacher.

“Being understaffed is so unsafe,” said the teacher, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal. “For a large portion of the day, kids aren’t receiving instruction from a qualified educator.”

Still, the debate remains heated, with some Philadelphia parents sharply opposed to blanket closures.

Patty Pina Slutsky is currently helping her son, a first grader at Nebinger Elementary in South Philadelphia, cope with a COVID-19 quarantine. He spent his kindergarten year learning remotely, a challenge for the boy, who receives special education services.

Pina Slutsky believes the school district should adopt CHOP’s recommendation to drop quarantines from 10 days to five, which could ease staffing crunches. Her son is not ill, and when he’s out of school, he regresses and cannot access services.

“It seems like there’s a middle ground between not forcing sick people into school and over-quarantining,” said Slutsky, who said she agrees with the PFT’s calls for access to better masks and more vaccination clinics.

But, she said, she doesn’t believe closing schools would curb the spread of COVID, and said it causes a massive impact on families.

“And I do worry about it being longer than two weeks — what’s the next goalpost?”