In the School District of Philadelphia, as in districts all across the country this fall, school has started against the backdrop of the coronavirus delta variant. Currently, nearly one in four of every new COVID-19 infection is in children. A little over two weeks into the new school year, four Philly schools have temporarily closed after a swell of COVID-19 cases were discovered.
This year, staff are vaccinated and masks are being worn, which are two important measures for COVID-19 mitigation, but there are two other important safety measures not being taken.
While three feet of social distancing is recommended by the CDC, there is no requirement for any distancing now that the district will be at nearly full capacity, five days a week. Unlike last spring, there is also no asymptomatic testing this year, and so students and staff with asymptomatic infections, or whose symptoms are not detected during the school day, will be able to transmit infection.
After 18 months of living with this pandemic, we know that indoor mealtimes pose a high level of risk since children are removing their masks. Additionally, since there is no longer any space requirement, many of our crowded schools are seating students closer together than they did last spring. Over the last year and a half, we have seen the city rise to the challenges of COVID-19 for recreational activities — entire streets have been shut to increase outdoor dining capacity, and outdoor activities like those at city parks and on the Delaware River Waterfront have been providing safe ways for residents to have fun.
School principals, however, have effectively been left to their own devices, with limited staffing, to figure out how to keep children safe during mealtimes.
Most elementary schools in Philadelphia have children quickly eating lunch indoors in cohorts over a two-hour period.
What if instead, schools followed the lead of many Philly restaurants and roped off sidewalks for those two hours to allow students and staff to be safer outside? If we can shut down major thoroughfares in Center City — like blocks of Sansom Street and 13th Street — to car traffic for outdoor dining on weekends and evenings, which we have demonstrated is possible, then we can also shut down sidewalks on weekdays when there is less pedestrian traffic. This could be done under tents when it rains, and would hopefully be for just a few more months until most students can be vaccinated, at which point the risk decreases significantly.
Private schools in the area are utilizing outdoor space and tents. The Philadelphia School, Greene Street Friends, and Germantown Friends are among the private schools that have tents set up for outdoor instruction and eating.
Don’t our public school students deserve to stay safe, too?
One issue that could arise with this suggestion is staffing, which has been another challenge this year as lunchtime staff are sparse, and the district is not allowing parent volunteers to help with supervision.
But the city’s Parks and Recreation Department — home to the largest urban park system in the country and also boasts 157 parks and recreation centers throughout the city, 91 of which host after-school programs — already does a great job of staffing youth programs and getting kids to and from our schools. Why not collaborate with them to support the district’s schools with staff and space for outdoor lunch and recess?
Philadelphia has been able to show creativity and resourcefulness many times over the last 18 months. It’s time to employ the resources of the city to keep our kids safe, especially when they have to be unmasked, so our schools can stay open.
Meredith Weber is a mother of two and a psychologist. She lives in South Philadelphia.