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There’s no way to ‘safely reopen’ Philadelphia’s schools | Opinion

As an educator, I’ll be quick to acknowledge that virtual learning is not perfect. But right now, it's the only safe option.

Hand sanitizers line the hallway at Paul Robeson High School in University City on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Philadelphia public schools are currently doing remote learning due to the coronavirus, but the district will reopen classrooms for younger students starting Nov. 30.
Hand sanitizers line the hallway at Paul Robeson High School in University City on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Philadelphia public schools are currently doing remote learning due to the coronavirus, but the district will reopen classrooms for younger students starting Nov. 30.Read more / File Photograph

Students and families have naturally struggled with the realities of learning virtually in the midst of a pandemic, and school districts have thus been receiving pressure to reopen locally and nationally.

As an educator, I’ll be quick to acknowledge that virtual learning, especially as it stands now in the School District of Philadelphia, is no adequate substitute for traditional in-person teaching and learning. Unreliable internet access, student household responsibilities, and mental health issues related to isolation are just a few reasons why.

However, I urge the School District of Philadelphia, where I teach, to continue with digital learning through the winter season and not begin reopening classrooms Nov. 30, as planned. Hard evidence to support “safe reopening” in such a virus-stricken, underfunded district is grossly lacking.

» READ MORE: Philly School District to begin in-person learning Nov. 30 — for some students

A common narrative has emerged that it’s worth the health risks for schools to reopen. The Inquirer’s Sept. 27 reporting noted that “early evidence” shows low rates of transmission inside K-12 schools that have reopened, with some experts suggesting that “schools now have a window to bring children back to buildings…,” and highlighted the reopening efforts of a suburban, parochial school.

However, given that large urban school districts — where coronavirus case counts run highest and resources run lowest — began the year completely virtually, we cannot say that low transmission would be the case in these environments. (The Washington Post recently reported that of the information we do have, “the data are largely from smaller communities.”) What’s more, an updated report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association on Sept. 29 detailed that pediatric cases of COVID-19 have risen rapidly and substantially over time — including a 14% increase nationwide over a two-week period in September alone.

Compounding this issue, the New York Times has reported that given we lack federal virus tracking and published state tracking in Pennsylvania, “it is nearly impossible to tally a precise figure of how many cases have been identified in schools.” The Inquirer, too, has acknowledged that this lack of clarity and transparency is common among many Philadelphia-area districts, causing concern among families about the prospect of their children bringing the coronavirus home.

Many students live in multigenerational homes, with parents and guardians who have had to report to their physical workplaces since the very beginning of the pandemic. Family members, educators, administrators, and staff will thus increase their risk of contracting this incurable, highly lethal disease, and exacerbate outbreaks in our city.

New York City, one of the few comparable districts that has reopened, has already seen staggering consequences. Already in the first three weeks, New York had to shut down more than 100 schools, according to the city’s school building closure website. While that city’s positive testing rate had remained below 2% throughout the summer, New York’s reopening attempt has coincided with an uptick in cases within certain neighborhoods that adhere less to local guidelines, according to the New York Times. Some neighborhoods are testing as high as 8.56%.

» READ MORE: Coronavirus outbreaks close three Philly-area schools

Similarly, Philadelphia hovered between 2%-3% positive testing rates in recent months. However, certain neighborhoods, particularly in the Northeast, have consistently seen two-week averages above 7% — the 19149 zip code saw a staggering 10.4% two-week average heading into this week (though it dropped to 7.9% later this week). Pennsylvania and New Jersey saw their highest case counts since May heading into October.

Philadelphia families, teachers, administrators, and staff have good reason to doubt the plausibility of a “safe reopening” — as CASA, the principals’ union, and PFT, our teachers’ union, have detailed. Environmental concerns such as mold, lead, and asbestos have already endangered the lives of children and staff, and would only make virus spreading more rampant. Plus, due to ventilation concerns, just 21% of schools have been deemed certified to reopen according to the district’s own building-readiness assessment, as of this writing.

The Northeast is home to some of the most overcrowded, undersized classrooms in the city, many with class sizes of 30-35, or more. I teach at an elementary school, for example, with more than 2,300 students on its roster; the original school was built for a population less than half this size. Building additions have been unable to keep up with population growth. Hallways remain clogged with traffic during transitions. Modular trailers have been necessary “classrooms” to accommodate students the past two school years. So even with hybrid scheduling, how could educators like myself possibly enforce social distancing without the literal necessary space? How could we uphold the other public health requirements that the PFT called for in its nine-criteria reopening report — particularly with some people still choosing not to wear masks?

» READ MORE: Hybrid school is finally here. It is not perfect, but ‘the kids are happy.’ | Maria Panaritis

In light of the relevant data, it’s time to start planning for the appropriate reality: A “COVID year” in education — one in which every family receives reliable internet, technology, and meals; one in which we create academic structures focused on students’ social-emotional well-being; and one in which families all can rest assured that public education won’t be the cause of mass coronavirus casualties. At least not in our city.

John Stuetz is a Lindback Award-winning ESOL teacher and political liaison at a public elementary school in Northeast Philadelphia.