District’s hybrid plan provokes questions, concerns among parents and teachers

Most students will attend school in person two days a week; families can opt for a "digital academy."

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This story has been updated.

The School District of Philadelphia announced a complicated hybrid reopening plan Wednesday in which most students would attend school two days a week, relying on virtual learning the rest of the time.

Families will also have the option of going all-digital in a District-run “digital academy” and must make that decision by Aug. 4. Teachers can opt out of in-person teaching if they have a medical reason. They will be required to show evidence of being especially vulnerable to the coronavirus due to their own health or that of a family member.

Each school is charged with figuring out how best to implement the plan and still follow all the health and safety guidelines, one of which is to have no more than 12 to 15 students in each classroom at a time.

All individuals are expected to stay six feet apart, including the youngest children; hallways and rooms will be marked. A five-level cleaning plan will be virtually constant, and the District may have to expand its 900-person custodial staff to make sure it is carried out.

Each day, staff and families will need to fill out a health assessment asking whether anyone in their household has tested positive for COVID-19 and whether they have been exposed to someone with the virus. There will not be daily temperature checks or testing of asymptomatic staff members.

All people entering the building, from kindergarten students on up, will be required to wear a mask or face covering that meets prescribed standards. Those who cannot wear a mask for health reasons will need to wear a face shield.

Students will eat lunch either in their classrooms or in socially distanced seats in the school cafeteria.

Under the plan, teachers would work four days a week in the school buildings, with some students attending on Mondays and Wednesdays, and others on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Friday would be all digital for everyone. Some students – the most vulnerable – would attend up to four days a week to maximize their in-person instructional time. These include the youngest children and students with complex needs. (CORRECTION: The four-day-a-week in person option for English learners is not in the final plan, with the District citing cost.)

The District has more than 200 schools, ranging from small, under-enrolled elementaries to vast, overcrowded high schools. Some are in old buildings, and some in newer ones. How this will play out for individual teachers, students and families is still very much a work in progress.

Challenge for working parents

One huge question is how working parents will cope with what is now part-time school. The city’s child care sector is already overwhelmed and facing its own social-distancing guidelines that limit the number of children they can take in. Another big question is how to secure universal internet access so all students can participate in the virtual component of school – something that does not now exist. City and District officials say they have been negotiating with the city’s internet service providers, the largest of which is Comcast. A growing number of officials, including City Councilmember Helen Gym, are renewing calls for Comcast to open its residential hotspots or otherwise provide for blanket coverage across the city at broadband speeds that make doing schoolwork feasible.

“In many ways, the work is just beginning,” said Mayor Kenney as he helped roll out the plan.

Acknowledging that the circumstances are unprecedented, Superintendent William Hite said that a series of working groups focusing on issues including safety, academics, transportation, food, facilities, and overall student and staff support have been meeting weekly since March to finalize the plan, which runs to 28 pages plus 21 appendices covering everything from special education instructional design to food-service cleaning protocols.

“Like districts across the country, our working groups had to reimagine how schools can operate,” he said.

He warned that even if all precautions are faithfully observed, there is still a likelihood that the virus will appear.

“I must say, we are preparing for when, not if, positive COVID-19 cases impact one or more of our school communities,” Hite said. “The unfortunate reality is that infections are rising in many parts of the country, and there is not yet a vaccine. Therefore, we will remain in constant communication with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and work closely with them, following their guidance regarding protocols around when to temporarily close a classroom, a school, or even the entire district and return to fully digital learning.”

Hite estimates that all this will cost between $60 million and $80 million in additional funds. Although the District had attained a period of relative fiscal stability, that was upended by the coronavirus. Based on current projections, the District is forecasting an $800 million shortfall by 2025, due in large part to COVID-19’s impact on tax revenue. And that is without the additional anticipated spending.

“Districts across the country are facing devastating financial projections because of COVID-19,” Hite said. He added that passage of the HEROES Act, which would provide $3 trillion in federal aid to states to help them cope with the pandemic, is crucial to the nation’s educational future.

“There’s no room for politics when it comes to safety educating our children and ensuring that professionals, the adults responsible for this work, can do so without placing their health in jeopardy,” Hite said.

He said the plan was developed with input from the city Department of Public Health, the Mayor’s Office, and the Policy Lab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The District also sent out surveys of parents and teachers, and sought feedback in virtual town halls and on their website.

“Safety and science have guided our entire process about how our children will return to school, and it will be safety and science that will be used to implement policies to keep us safe in these challenging circumstances,” the mayor said. Questions and concerns Immediate reaction to the plan showed widespread concern over the District’s ability to implement and oversee such a complex, costly undertaking.

“A better plan would be to start fully virtual until things are safer and then try for a hybrid second quarter,” said teacher Zoe Rooney, adding that she’s “really horrified to read that they plan on giving teachers one cloth mask for the entire year. Combined with small square footage of many classrooms, it is a disaster.”

“Our special-ed classroom assistants work the closest with students who are least able to maintain hygiene and distancing practices,” Rooney said. “One cloth mask for them?”

Officials at the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers say the plan “raises a number of significant concerns.” President Jerry Jordan said in an interview that teachers won’t feel comfortable with the District’s safety plans until they see proof that they’ll be implemented consistently and with rigor in every building.

Three things the union wants to see, Jordan said: a “pandemic chief” to field all calls and concerns about safety issues; ample supplies and rapid delivery of personal protective equipment and sanitizer; and all the necessary upgrades and repairs needed to ventilate classrooms and other spaces.

“We should eliminate as much risk as possible, for all employees and students,” Jordan said. “There has to be a ‘pandemic chief’ in the district. If I walk into the Taylor school and find there’s no hand sanitizer, who do I call? They need to get that sanitizer there literally within minutes. We can’t be waiting all day, like we usually do.”

The ventilation issue is major, said Jordan. Counselors and nurses, in particular, are frequently housed in basement rooms or converted utility spaces, he said, with “no ventilation, no windows.” Teachers need to see those spaces made safe, he said, and budgets need to be ready.

“We can’t do it on the cheap – and that’s the way the District has always operated,” Jordan said. “We cannot gamble with the lives of children and staff.”

Among Jordan’s questions going forward: the role of principals in developing and communicating the details of each school’s plans. Jordan said he does not yet know, for example, whether and when school staff should expect to hear from principals about building-specific issues.

“I really don’t know – that’s one of the things that’s unclear,” he said.

City Councilmember Helen Gym said she’s worried about those building-level capacity issues.

“I am concerned about the District’s reliance on individual schools to ‘self-screen’ for health problems when we have far too few health professionals in our city schools,” Gym said in a statement. “We fought hard to get a minimum of one nurse in every school, but this number is inadequate given the potential health needs that children and their families face.”

Gym has similar concerns about cleaning staff. “It’s clear that it must dramatically expand the number of cleaning positions,” she said. “According to national best practices, the District would need to expand from 900 cleaners to several hundred more in order to stay on track.”

Gym also said that she wanted to see much more engagement from District officials, calling for “a robust public engagement and feedback process including parent and teacher hotlines for reporting health and safety concerns.”

The volunteer group Parents United for Public Education echoed that call, expressing frustration with the District’s largely closed-door planning process.

“We, along with our partner organizations, have been asking for advisory committees made up of students, parents, and all levels of school staff for months, but all we’ve seen is highly structured surveys and one-way town halls,” the group said in a statement. “Getting through this school year will require collective effort, but right now we’re seeing that effort distributed unevenly with the biggest burdens on students, families, and school-based staff.”

Jordan said that the PFT plans to keep working closely with District officials to fine-tune the plan. But he said the biggest factor in its support for any plan will be the progress of the disease itself.

“If the numbers begin to rise here in Philadelphia, our position is going to change. We’re not going to support anything that would send children and staff into buildings that literally risk their lives,” said Jordan.

“The numbers are going to drive it.”

District wants HEROES Act

Hite and Kenney minced no words in dismissing the financial threats from President Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as ignorant bluster. They have threatened to withhold federal funds – which they actually don’t have the power to do – if schools don’t open fully for in-person instruction.

Trump can, however, help block the passage of additional aid to schools. The HEROES Act has passed the House, but is stalled in the Senate.

“Now is not the time for threats from the U.S. Secretary of Education or the president to keep money from districts like ours,” Kenney said. “… Unfortunately, Secretary DeVos, while demanding in-person learning, has said that individual districts will have to figure out how to do that safely. How nice of her. This is unacceptable.”

Hite called Trump and DeVos “completely out of touch.”

Kenney also warned that components of this plan can and “very likely will change as we get deeper into the school year, because COVID-19 continues to evolve.”

City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said that in evaluating the impact of school reopening on health and safety, it was necessary to do more than simply consider the potential for spreading the virus.

“Schools, under ordinary circumstances, are crowded, so that’s a situation of risk,” he said, while noting that Philadelphia has not experienced the recent surges seen in other cities and that children have a lower rate of severe infection with the coronavirus. “So we could just consider keeping schools closed, but for their long-term success, including their long-term health, children need to learn. So as a society, we have to try to find a way to balance those risks.”

Barbara Klock, the District’s medical officer, offered reassurance: “We are very prepared to implement an extensive set of safety measures to promote the healthy environments for everyone in the upcoming school year.” But she said this will take cooperation on the part of everyone to strictly follow the guidelines.

Alicia Prince, interim head of facilities and operations in the District, explained a five-step cleaning plan. Hite said that it might be necessary to hire more cleaners.

Over the summer, all school buildings are being “deep cleaned” and will be inspected and re-cleaned if necessary right before they open. And once occupied, Prince said, they will be cleaned and disinfected daily, “sprayed down using an electrostatic backpack sprayer with EPA-registered antiviral disinfecting spray.” On top of that, door handles, bathroom fixtures, railings, and other “high touch” surfaces will be cleaned every four hours. Hand sanitizer stations will be at multiple entryways.

The building staff is also working on making sure that windows are “operable and secure,” she said, and buildings will have humidity control.

Hite said that it is likely that some buildings will have closed-off areas if all the safety protocols cannot be met.

He also said that the District was working with “faith-based” and other institutions to see whether they could provide places for children to go on their virtual days. And he said that the negotiations with internet service providers on increasing access should produce an announcement soon.

Officials offered details and projected confidence that they are doing the right thing, but nobody knows for sure how all this will work out. And much immediate reaction was full of skepticism.

Parents and others posted a barrage of questions on Facebook and Twitter, asking about everything from whether the start and end times for schools will be affected to what the protocol will be for cleaning up after eating in the classroom. Teachers wondered about the fine points of insurance coverage.

Confusion is still widespread over exactly how full-time digital learning will work and who the teachers will be. Some called it “the worst of both worlds.”

But as the District’s proposals are just taking shape, the September plans of the city’s 80-plus charter schools remain largely unknown. Individual schools are required to file safety plans with state officials, but there is no deadline. Most charters have said little about their own plans, and regional choice advocacy groups, including the Philadelphia School Partnership, declined to comment on when their plans may appear or how the District’s own reopening strategy may affect them.

And while choice advocates are urging parents to consider new options as District schools struggle to accommodate COVID, Jordan said he’s concerned that charter families and teachers won’t have the information they need to make informed choices. District staff can report problems to the PFT, he said, but charter staff won’t have that option.

“Their employees can be silenced,” said Jordan. “We are the advocates for our members, but most charter teachers have no representation.”