Philadelphia plans full in-person learning in the fall, will also offer remote option

Superintendent William Hite, center, with Robin Cooper, left, president of Teamsters Local 502/CASA, Jerry Jordan, president of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Royce Merriweather, of the union representing school safety officers and Nicole Hunt, right, president of Local 634.
Superintendent William Hite, center, with Robin Cooper, left, president of Teamsters Local 502/CASA, Jerry Jordan, president of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Royce Merriweather, president of the School Police Association of Philadelphia, and Nicole Hunt, right, president of Local 634 Unite Here. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

Philadelphia schools will open for full-time, in-person learning in the fall for all students who choose it, assuming that the Centers for Disease Control relaxes its three-foot social distancing requirements for schools, Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William Hite announced Wednesday.

Hite and Kenney said that schools can reopen safely. And they have the backing of the district’s labor unions, including Jerry Jordan of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who joined them on stage at a press conference in the stately, 90-year-old Spring Garden Elementary School. 

“All along we have shared the belief that children learn best alongside their peers in classrooms led by caring teachers,” Hite said. “The goal for the upcoming ’21-22 school year is to safely welcome all of our students back to school for full in-person learning for five days a week beginning on Tuesday, Aug. 31.” 

While the district will not offer hybrid learning — Hite called it “not ideal or a sustainable instructional option,” based on educator feedback — it will provide the option of fully virtual learning for families who want it. 

Students who choose virtual will work with teachers “exclusively assigned to this learning model,” he said.

Hite cited the low and declining rates of COVID cases in Philadelphia, the ongoing relaxing of COVID-related restrictions, the growing number of vaccinated people, and the ability to vaccinate 12-to-15-year-olds as reasons that contributed to the decision. “Most importantly, the rate of positive COVID cases within our district has remained well below 1%,” he said.

A year of virtual learning due to COVID-19 has led to “devastating impacts,” including emotional trauma; physical separation from friends, teachers, and family members; the loss of loved ones; increased gun and domestic violence; and learning loss, Hite said. (The district began phasing students back to school two days a week in early March.) He believes that fully reopening schools is the best way to help students heal and recover.” 

Kenney agrees. “After a long year of isolation and uncertainty, students will get to connect with their friends and their teachers. Because students will be safe and supervised in schools, our entire city will benefit as more parents and caregivers return to in-person and full-time work.” 

Mayor Jim Kenney on Wednesday at the school district’s announcement of fully reopening schools in the fall. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

Jordan said the PFT endorses the return to in-person learning. “We believe it’s important for children to have in-person instruction,” Jordan said.

For most of this school year, the PFT fought district plans to reopen schools due to concerns about building safety, especially regarding ventilation. Last week, the union issued a report showing that many district buildings are still plagued with potentially toxic conditions including peeling lead paint, mold, and damaged asbestos. 

Those problems predated the pandemic, Jordan noted. As far as ventilation concerns in classrooms next fall, he said that the union will also keep tabs on conditions in schools and classrooms. 

The PFT was certifying buildings as “safe” before they reopened for the hybrid model. “We will reassess buildings if the CDC guidelines change,” Jordan said. “We believe staff and kids should return to buildings that are safe.” 

Hite said he expected new guidance from the CDC on social distancing and other conditions in a few weeks. Currently, students and staff must wear masks and are tested periodically for COVID-19. District spokeswoman Monica Lewis said they will follow CDC guidelines on those practices. 

If the CDC maintains the three-foot requirement for schools, the district will have to rethink the plan, since maintaining that distance will be difficult if not impossible in many schools and classrooms. 

The district wants the public to weigh in on the reopening plans through an online survey and a series of focus groups. The 10-minute survey can be completed before 5 p.m. on May 28.

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