As COVID cases soar, Philly schools plan for tentative reopening after break

A man stands at a lectern
Philadelphia school Superintendent William Hite said in a holiday message that he plans to reopen schools for in-person learning after the holiday break, but the guidance could change from the city’s health department. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

Philadelphia schools plan to open in person on Jan. 4 after the winter break, although both district and city health officials caution that it is an “evolving” situation in the face of a spike in COVID cases. 

“We must all be flexible and understanding that plans can change quickly,” said a letter from Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s health commissioner. 

In a holiday message to staff and families, Superintendent William Hite said the plan is to open in person as scheduled, while emphasizing that if COVID-19 cases surge over the break, the district could receive new guidance from the city’s health department.

Given the increase in cases, Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said it would be “irresponsible for the district not to consider a return to virtual learning...until such time as they can effectively, and with fidelity, solidify their mitigation measures.”

He also raised questions about whether there is adequate enforcement of COVID mitigation measures in all schools. He said on Wednesday he received reports of more than 100 buildings with COVID cases “from one day.” (Emphasis is his.)

“Many buildings reported double digit cases, and dozens have closed or ‘paused,’” he said in a statement.

The health department ultimately makes the decision on whether to close schools for two weeks or to “pause” them for 48 hours while it conducts an investigation of reported COVID cases. The investigation determines whether a full 10-day quarantine is warranted based on the size of the school, the location of the cases, and other circumstances, said health department spokesperson James Garrow. 

Right now, 19 district schools are under 10-day quarantine, with more than half of them put in that status since Tuesday, Garrow said.

“We are seeing an extremely rapid rise in new cases of COVID through the city,” said Garrow, which he said mirrors what is happening in other cities and is likely driven by the omicron variant.

According to the mayor’s office, as of Dec. 20, Philadelphia averaged 641 new cases per day over the prior two weeks, with a positivity rate of 7.2%. That is a jump from the week before, when the daily average was 492 new cases a day and a positivity rate of 5%.

At the same time, Garrow said, the department continues to support the continuation of in-person school for as long as possible.

“We still believe that the risk of other health and mental health consequences is so great to these children that, provided schools can do all the [mitigation] protocols we need, we believe it is still safe to go into schools,” Garrow said. 

Jordan said that the union also supports the “safe” reopening of schools, but is concerned about mask-wearing, lack of accurate data, inadequate contact tracing, virus testing, and a nursing shortage. The school district’s website lists 13 nursing vacancies. He also said the district “continues to punt” on conducting widespread vaccine clinics, although it is hosting six testing sites.

“If the district cannot implement these urgently needed measures, then I do not see another option than a return to virtual learning until such time as these measures are firmly in place,”he said in a statement. “I am hearing from our members, and we are seeing first-hand, terribly inconsistent implementation of agreed upon protocols.”

Jordan said he sent a letter to Hite outlining these issues.

The district issued a response to Jordan’s statement, saying that PFT members should report to officials any “specific instance of that we can immediately address the issue. To generally assert that students and staff are not adhering to the mask mandate is not useful nor does it help with us accomplishing our shared goal of keeping”

The statement said: “For mitigation strategies to be successful, we all must do our part to implement them with fidelity.”

Garrow said that based on the data it has, the health department believes that schools are not a major source of spread.

“In-school spread is a minority of what we’re seeing,” Garrow said. The department believes that the majority of cases among students results from their being “exposed to it at home or out in the community.” 

The department can close a classroom, a grade, or a whole school. A classroom closure is triggered if there are three or more cases. If two classes in a grade are closed, or if there are six or more cases in a grade, the department quarantines the entire grade. A school is closed if at least 3% of the population has tested positive or three or more grades have been paused. 

Where there are isolated cases, those identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive can continue with in-person learning if they are vaccinated, Garrow said. Close contacts who are not fully vaccinated must stay out of the building for 10 days. 

“The best way to ensure that your children can continue with in-person learning is to get them vaccinated,” he said. 

The district’s statement said that, as of Dec. 18, 1.9% of 139,212 students and staff tested positive, but that covers the period since August. All staff are tested weekly if vaccinated, and twice a week if not vaccinated. District officials say 85% of staff is vaccinated.

Students are tested if they are symptomatic or if they participate in performing arts. Teachers and school staff are required to be vaccinated, unless they have a medical or religious exemption. Students are not required to be vaccinated, except for athletes.

Among students ages 5-11, who only became eligible for vaccination in November, 22.4% have received at least one vaccine dose, according to the health department. Most of the schools that have closed are elementary schools. 

Among all city adults, 76.6% are fully vaccinated and 89.1% have received at least one dose. Garrow said there are no separate numbers for 12- to 18-year-olds.

As of Jan. 3, the city is requiring proof of vaccination for staff and patrons of restaurants and bars. Starting Jan. 17, a negative test will no longer be acceptable as a substitute. 

Philadelphia schools that are temporarily closed due to COVID cases include: Pennypacker, John Welsh, A.S Jenks, Ethan Allen, Sullivan, Kenderton, Waring, Penn Treaty High School, Blankenburg, Carnell, Fox Chase, AB Day, McDaniel, Mifflin, McKinley, Munoz-Marin, Clemente, Richmond, U School, J.H. Brown, and Emlen.  

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