Philly schools are going mask-optional, but kids and staff must mask for the first 10 days of class
“Our schools are hubs for our community and are among the safest places for our students to be,” said Tony B. Watlington Sr., the district’s new superintendent.
Philadelphia School District staff and students must mask for the first 10 days of the 2022-23 school year, but masks will then be optional — but “strongly recommended” — as long as case counts do not spike.
“We are committed to keeping students in school for in-person learning,” Kendra McDow, a pediatrician and epidemiologist and the district’s chief medical officer, said at a news conference Friday.
A mask mandate will be reinstated if the COVID-19 community transmission rate, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, becomes high. (It’s currently in the medium range.)
“Our schools are hubs for our community and are among the safest places for our students to be,” said Tony B. Watlington Sr., the district’s new superintendent, who with McDow detailed the district’s 2022-23 health and safety protocols.
Though they have a plan in place, things may shift, district officials said.
“It is important that we remain flexible, as we have done for the past 2-1/2 years,” said McDow.
The health and safety announcement comes on the heels of new guidance from the CDC, which Thursday said it was no longer recommending social distancing or quarantines for those exposed to someone infected with COVID.
Children’s Hospital’s PolicyLab also suggested this week that districts loosen their approach to COVID-19 mitigation. Absent directives from county health departments, districts no longer need weekly testing, social distancing, cohorts or masking — unless COVID transmission is high, CHOP said. PolicyLab did recommend vaccines for school staff and students.
Though students and teachers had a few months of no masks in the spring, the district has been mask-mandatory since late May, when rising case counts caused leaders to return to a mask mandate. Masks were required during summer school, which ended last week.
Watlington and McDow also said the district is dropping a requirement for student athletes to be vaccinated, though it’s still urging them to get inoculated. The change, McDow said, came because “we wanted to make sure that we were equitably applying the vaccine mandate across the board if we were going to continue with it during the school year.”
The staff vaccination mandate remains in place, officials said.
McDow said requiring students and staff to mask from Aug. 29 through Sept. 9 was a necessary move.
“Kids are returning from summer break — there’s increased social gatherings, increased mobility,” she said. Historically, case counts rise after such times.
Masking may also be required in certain schools and at certain times of the year, McDow said — if there’s an outbreak in a classroom or community, or after a break.
Philadelphia staff and students exposed to COVID will not have to isolate unless they have COVID symptoms. Instead, they can remain at school or work as long as they mask for 10 days. And employees and students who test positive will have to remain home for five calendar days with access to virtual learning. If they’re symptom free after five days, they can return to school, but only if they wear an N95 or KN95 mask for five more days.
(McDow said the district is also keeping its eye on how monkeypox infections evolve, but “at this time, the risk of children being infected with monkeypox is low.”)
Watlington said the district was working through an “aggressive cleaning schedule” this summer and will continue to have air purifiers in every classroom, gym, and office, touchless sanitizing stations, and touchless hydration stations.
“We think health and safety is very important to everyone,” the superintendent said. “It’s certainly something that’s been on our minds all summer long.”
The district’s teachers union said it was “encouraged” by a school year that begins with 10 days of masking and whose guidance stresses fluidity as public health conditions change.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers urged the district to “continue to make necessary adjustments and improvement to ventilation, as recommended by the CDC,” president Jerry Jordan said in a statement.
Jordan also said the union enters the school year “with cautious optimism and with a deep commitment to work collaboratively with all partners, including Superintendent Watlington, to ensure that our students and educators can learn and work in safe, healthy, and rewarding environments.”