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As some Philly kids return to buildings, schools cope with staff and student absences due to COVID-19

The Philadelphia School District Tuesday announced 11 more schools moving to virtual instruction temporarily, bringing to 92 the total of public schools closed because of COVID-19 staffing shortages.

Students at some Philadelphia School District schools returned to class Tuesday after winter break. Students at 81 city schools are learning virtually because of large numbers of COVID-19 cases and staff absences.
Students at some Philadelphia School District schools returned to class Tuesday after winter break. Students at 81 city schools are learning virtually because of large numbers of COVID-19 cases and staff absences.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

Even as 81 of its schools shifted to digital instruction Tuesday amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, thousands of Philadelphia School District students returned to other school buildings, some of which coped with significant staff and student absence rates.

The district, backed by the city health department and research out of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has long said it would keep schools open whenever possible. Its move late Monday night to have more than one-third of its 216 schools closed for in-person learning came with case counts rising sharply, rendering some schools unable to safely staff buildings.

Officials announced Tuesday that 11 more schools would move to virtual instruction beginning Wednesday, bringing the total to 92. Those schools will remain online-only through at least the end of the week, with the remaining schools in person.

“It is clear that the omicron surge in the Philadelphia area is adding yet another layer of complexity to the challenges we have been experiencing since the start of the school year,” Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. wrote in a message to staff Tuesday. “It has not been an easy or predictable school year. But despite these challenges, one thing remains clear: after nearly two years of pandemic trauma, keeping our students in schools in person is essential for their physical, social, emotional and academic health. We will continue to keep our schools open as consistently as possible as long as we have enough staff to maintain safe and orderly schools.”

Both the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the district’s principals’ union have asked the school system to move to completely virtual learning for now.

Robin Cooper, who leads the principals’ union, said that many of her members don’t have enough personal protective equipment in their buildings and lack the personnel to do regular cleaning — let alone the necessary deep cleaning. And 14 buildings still have nurse vacancies, she said.

“We’re now behind the eight ball, operating in a reactive manner,” said Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators Local 502. “It leaves my folks totally vulnerable to try to man a whole school with a skeleton crew, and worry about their own safety.”

CASA urged the district to return all schools to virtual instruction until case counts decrease. It also wants N95 or KN95 masks for all students and staff; more testing; better turnaround times from the central office team designated to notify affected families of COVID-19 exposures; and a return to the deep-cleaning protocols in place during the last school year.

Both Cooper and PFT president Jerry Jordan sent Hite letters this week expressing concerns.

Responding to Jordan, Hite said: “A letter filled with generalities does not help any of us maintain in-person learning. It actually does the opposite and undermines the work we are doing to protect the health and safety of our community.” He urged the union to report specific instances of noncompliance with COVID-19 protocols.

A group of Philadelphia school nurses also wrote to Hite, Mayor Jim Kenney, the school board, and other city officials asking for a two-week pause for in-person learning. The nurses support open schools, said Eileen Duffey Bernt, school nurse at Academy at Palumbo and one of the letter writers, but think the temporary shift is necessary to manage the surge, especially given Philadelphia children’s low vaccination rate.

“The high contagion of the Omicron strain, the shortage of school nursing staff, and inadequate supply of COVID-19 tests in schools and at testing sites calls for more support in each school building to address this current surge,” the nurses wrote. “Please reconsider how to allocate COVID-19 relief funds. Nurses are questioning if COVID-19 relief funds are being adequately utilized for COVID-19 mitigation management and assistance for nursing staff in our schools.”

While some schools managed a normal day Tuesday, with students glad to be back in buildings, others struggled.

One principal whose school remained open in person was missing about 20% of staff and 10% of students, and scrambled to cover classes and lunches. Other schools operating in person combined classes, canceling subjects like art, music, and gym to make it work. And at other schools, staff who tested positive during their regularly scheduled COVID-19 testing left midday.

District-wide attendance figures were not immediately available.

Jordan on Tuesday characterized the school day as “chaotic and entirely untenable.”

“Multiple schools reported that 10 or more additional staff members tested positive in their weekly testing this morning,” he said in a statement. “Staffing shortages have impacted every facet of a school’s operation — from teachers, to paraprofessionals supporting students with special needs, to lunchroom staff, to secretaries, to nurses, to climate staff, to administrators, the massive shortages have made functioning nearly impossible.”

Some parents took matters into their own hands, keeping students home from in-person classes Tuesday because of COVID-19 concerns. Shakeda Gaines, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, isn’t sure of totals but said that she heard from concerned families unwilling to send their children back into buildings.

Gaines is concerned about the cleanliness of schools, as well as high numbers of vacancies across many staff categories.

“The district is not making it a safe space, or giving a lot of families safe decisions, right now,” said Gaines.

Christina Rosan, a parent with children at Penn Alexander in West Philadelphia, kept her children at home, worried that the district doesn’t have a grasp of the true number of positive cases because it does not perform testing of any asymptomatic students. (After the city recommended schools institute asymptomatic testing in early fall, Hite said the district would begin doing so, but to date has not announced plans to begin.) She’s tried to call the School District but can’t get anyone to answer the phone, she said.

“There’s so much in flux and it seemed like such a disaster,” said Rosan. “I thought, maybe I’d just take today to see how bad it is.”

Rosan said she’d be much more comfortable with virtual instruction until schools have asymptomatic testing, N95 masks for all, and hospitals are less stressed. But because she’s worried about the consequences for her children if she keeps them out of school long-term, she will likely send them later this week.

After her entire family came down with COVID-19 in late December, likely from a school exposure, Tonaiya Coffer had to make a tough decision Tuesday: Send her oldest back to Northeast High, or keep him at home? Her youngest three attend MaST II Charter School, where school leaders gave parents the option of virtual instruction.

Ultimately, Coffer allowed her son, a Northeast junior who’s vaccinated and good about mask compliance, to attend school. She kept her youngest two at home and sent her second-oldest to MaSTII because she was both concerned about the impact of missing in-person instruction and confident in MaST’s building safety, transparency, and communication around COVID-19 cases.

It’s a different story with the School District, she said.

“I just don’t have confidence in how they’ve been handling things, even prior to COVID, with asbestos and other issues,” said Coffer. “I don’t get a level of comfort that safety is their No. 1 priority.”

Maritza Guridy’s kids stayed home Tuesday, too. Guridy, mother of two children who attend Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary and a child at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, is COVID-19 positive, as is her eldest, but wishes the district had just decided to keep everyone home for a few weeks.

“I personally would rather deal with a couple weeks of hardship than with someone being hospitalized or God forbid dying,” said Guridy.

There was widespread frustration over the district’s timetable on announcing the shift to remote instruction for some schools, which came with less than 12 hours’ notice, in some cases.

City Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson, a district parent, said she found out about the change on Twitter.

“This is not how you build trust,” Richardson wrote on Facebook. “Our students, teachers, administrators, building staff and most esp[ecially] working parents need more time to prepare for virtual learning. We deserve so much more than this.”

Monica Lewis, a district spokesperson, said decisions were being made late into the night Monday because district officials examined each school’s situation individually. There was no single threshold for closing, she said, but leaders weighed known absences, school climate, typical substitute fill rate, and other factors.

“All of those numbers were coming in yesterday, literally throughout the day,” said Lewis. “We didn’t want to make a blanket decision where it wasn’t needed. Where we see that staffing is sufficient at schools, we will keep those schools open. In person learning is best for our students.”

Students at remote schools were expected to log on for virtual instruction, though students’ access to technology varies. While the district has said it’s providing Chromebooks for all students, a social media posting for the Blaine Elementary community said that school was providing paper packets, rather than laptops “due to us not having enough laptops for all children at this time.”

Indrayudh Shome, a teacher at Dobbins High School, which is virtual this week, said many of his students’ Chromebooks are broken, so those students were trying to access work through their phones.

Shome was relieved that his school moved temporarily to virtual instruction, but worried about the larger picture, and what comes next.

“They’re just saying, ‘OK, we’re going to wait until enough people get sick at these other schools before they shut them down, too,’” said Shome.

Shome, who recently recovered from a COVID-19 case he believes he contracted at school, raised alarms about COVID-19 safety in a letter to district leaders sent Monday.

Mitigation measures now in place in district schools “are simply put forth in casual writing by the district without adequate resources or accountability,” Shome wrote. “They are, in fact, a backhanded slap in the face for teachers and administrators who are already under-resourced, overburdened, and trying to keep schools somehow functioning.”