With COVID surge in Philly, educators call for temporary return to remote learning or stricter health protocols

Classroom of desks spaced 6 feet apart with shields on top of the desks.
Eight district-run schools in Philadelphia have had temporary closures recently because of COVID-19 cases. One high school also closed for a 48-hour investigation. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

Amid a rise in COVID-19 cases, eight schools in the Philadelphia school district have closed temporarily because of positive cases.

The closures come amid an outcry over the recent death of an unvaccinated student at Olney Charter High School and data showing only about 21% of eligible children in Philadelphia have received the vaccine. Some educators are pushing for classes to go remote ahead of the holiday break, which begins Dec. 24, and for stricter health and safety measures for schools.

Before the recent closures, the district had only temporarily closed five schools this school year, said district spokesperson Monica Lewis. She told Chalkbeat the district has no immediate plans to go virtual amid this recent COVID spike. “We remain confident in our efforts to keep positive test rates relatively low considering the size of our student population,” she said.

Five schools, which serve early learners, have closed for a 10-day period, including Ethan Allen, Abram Jenks, John Welsh, Pennypacker, and Sullivan. Allen’s 10-day period ends Dec. 24, while Jenks, Welsh and Pennypacker’s ends Dec. 27. And Sullivan’s period ends Jan. 4, a day after district staff are scheduled to return. (The schools will reopen after the scheduled winter break.)

Three more schools — Kenderton Elementary School, Waring Middle School, and Penn Treaty High School — also have been closed for 10-day periods, according to the health department. They will reopen Jan. 4.

Another school, Randolph Technical High School in Nicetown, closed for a 48-hour investigation due to positive COVID-19 cases. The closure affected all classes and grades, though its ninth grade was already under quarantine until Jan. 4. The 48-hour closure ended Dec. 21, according to the school district.

“We are very much aware and encouraging people to be mindful to take care of themselves and loved ones, wear your masks and get tested,” Lewis said, adding that the district encourages eligible people to get vaccinated for “an additional layer of protection.”

The district also has six schools where COVID testing is offered to families, she said.

To date, 2,260 students and district staff have contracted the virus this school year— with 258 since Dec. 5, according to the district’s COVID dashboard. The district has more than 120,000 students and about 20,000 staff members.

Under district guidance, whole schools are only closed if 3% of the school population tests positive for the virus. That’s less strict than the previous guidelines, which closed buildings when there were six COVID cases regardless of the size of the student population.

The city health department released numbers Dec. 20 showing a spike in COVID cases. Philadelphia has averaged 641 new cases of COVID-19 per day over the last two weeks, an increase from about 254 per day around the Thanksgiving holiday.

The spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has some educators in Philadelphia questioning whether students should continue learning in person ahead of the holiday break, which starts Dec. 24 and runs until Jan. 4.

Robin Cooper, president of Local 502/CASA, the principals union, told Chalkbeat that all schools should be virtual for the remainder of the week.

“We’ve been polling members, and about 80% are for virtual,” she said, adding that the omicron variant and a lack of cleaning in some schools has caused concerns.

“It’s just a mess,” she said.

Though he disagrees with the prospect of schools going remote, Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, raised concerns about contact tracing of positive cases in schools.

“The teachers are very concerned and the contact tracing seems to be taking a longer period of time. And as a result of that, that causes a tremendous amount of anxiety among the members in our schools,” he said. “The nurses are so overworked that they cannot do the contact tracing.”

Some districts across the country are adjusting winter breaks or considering remote learning in January amid the omicron wave. But James Garrow, communications director for Philadelphia’s health department, said in an email that the city wants to keep schools open. “In-person education is beneficial to students in so many ways, we are committed to keeping students in school.”

He also said there are no imminent plans to alter school health protocols. “We believe that, so long as everyone follows the guidance of getting everyone vaccinated and boosted, wearing a mask whenever they aren’t eating or drinking, and staying home if they feel the slightest bit sick, we can help keep cases down,” he said.

Teachers at Olney called out of work Dec. 20, causing the school to go virtual, after the death last week of senior Alayna Thach from COVID. Educators at the charter school have been protesting what they say are inadequate health and safety protocols. The charter high school is run by ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania, which operates in primarily North Philadelphia communities, including Hunting Park, Olney, and Kensington.

The school has offered vaccine clinics, and Thach’s family said she had planned to get vaccinated in January.  

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