Philadelphia schools move forward with in-person learning for all students despite delta variant

Students, teachers will be required to wear face masks when they return Aug. 31. Weekly COVID testing will be mandatory for district employees.

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite crouches down next to students in a hallway at Science Leadership Academy.
Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite shown engaging with students. He and district officials said Friday they are confident schools will be able to reopen safely Aug. 31. (Darryl Murphy / The Notebook)

Philadelphia school officials are moving forward with plans to reopen for in-person learning Aug. 31 and will require students and teachers to wear masks. All employees also will undergo mandatory weekly COVID testing.

After more than 18 months of remote or hybrid learning, about 150,000 Philadelphia students are expected to return to classes. But that’s not happening without concerns over the delta variant, which has increased cases across the city.

Returning students also will see an increased level of counseling support to help them cope with personal setbacks due to the pandemic, Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said during a press briefing at Benjamin Franklin High School on Friday.

“We will be providing a much needed infusion of social-emotional support and services to our students, with an emphasis on students who have been heavily impacted by rising violence in our city,” said Evelyn Nuñez, district chief of schools.

Funding for the added support will come from the COVID relief money the federal government has allocated for K-12 schools across the U.S.

Superintendent William Hite at Benjamin Franklin High School Friday with a parent and education officials. The district plans for all grades to return for in-person learning in the fall. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

Hite said the district will monitor cases and continue to follow revised guidelines from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, or PDPH, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I also want to take this time to continue to encourage all staff to get vaccinated as soon as possible to benefit their own personal health and the health of those around them.”

The CDC announced Tuesday that all students and staff should wear masks inside schools, regardless of vaccination status. The move was an acknowledgment that slowing vaccination rates and the highly contagious delta variant are complicating plans for a more normal start to the school year.

Asked if the district would consider making the vaccine mandatory for teachers, Hite said that’s not an option. “We keep investigating our ability to do that and just don’t feel that is something that we can do now,” he said.

Hite was unable to say how many teachers have received the vaccine, but the district stated this week that almost half of its employees have taken advantage of vaccine appointments with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

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The district implemented a COVID tracker after concerns from parents and teachers who wanted a system to monitor outbreaks during hybrid learning. District officials told Chalkbeat “the COVID tracker has been effective at providing up-to-date information on COVID cases in our schools and helpful in ensuring that families feel confident about sending their children to school. We will continue to use it once school begins as part of our comprehensive multi-layer approach to the safety and protection of students and staff.”

Ventilation and air quality topped concerns for teachers earlier this year. Hite said the district is moving forward with its new air and surface purifiers despite criticism from a local air expert.

“We’ve been working hard throughout the summer to ensure that every school has many safety layers in place with air and surface purifiers in all instructional spaces,” he said.

Missing students was another issue during the pandemic year. The district estimated around 6,000 students were not enrolled last year, with half of those being kindergartners. Hite told Chalkbeat the district has increased its outreach to find those students and is working with the Department of Human Services and Office of Children and Families to re-engage those students.

Families who believe their child’s return to in-person learning poses a serious threat will have the option of enrolling the student into the district’s virtual academy, or PVA. The program is expanding to include students in kindergarten through fifth grade for this school year.

Students who enroll in PVA will engage in all independent learning on their own schedule using learning resources provided by an assigned teacher. Families have until Aug. 13 by 5 p.m. to register, Nunez said.

As he heads into his 10th year as superintendent, Hite said he’s excited to “welcome children back.”

“All I can think about now is how do we get children back into schools full time and making sure they are safe,” Hite said.

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