COVID safety tops Philly students’ concerns before return to school: ‘I’m a little nervous’

Student leaders participated with Chalkbeat in a roundtable discussion. The picture shows each student and the moderator in individual boxes from their Zoom conversation.
Student representatives from The Bullhorn, UrbEd Advocates, Philadelphia Student Union and Philly Black Students Alliance participated in a roundtable discussion with Chalkbeat on Friday evening. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

Jemille Duncan, a senior at Philadelphia’s Multicultural Academy Charter School, will be glad to finally see his classmates when school starts next week, but he worries about the spread of COVID with so many students returning to in-person learning.

“The district is in a really hard predicament because they are facing a lot of backlash from parents, and even some students who want to go back in person. And for good reason, lots of people perform better in person and teachers teach better in person,” said Duncan, who heads advocacy and policy for the student-run UrbEd Advocates. “However, I just don’t think we are prepared.”

Duncan was among a group of student leaders from a variety of schools and organizations who met with Chalkbeat to discuss issues, including safety plans for the 200,000 district and charter students showing up for class next Tuesday. Student representatives from The Bullhorn, UrbEd Advocates, Philadelphia Student Union, and Philly Black Students Alliance participated in a roundtable discussion on Friday evening.

To prevent the spread of COVID, the district announced plans last week to rely on “multiple layers of safety,” including universal masking, weekly testing of all staff members, on-site testing of symptomatic students, air purifiers in classrooms and other spaces, and regular deep cleaning. Philadelphia’s Board of Education also plans to hold a special meeting Tuesday “to consider a resolution to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for employees and all contractors” who work in district facilities, as New York City did on Monday.

“We have more than 2,000 students, and we do not have enough space (for social distancing),” said Vincent So, a senior at Central High School. “We’re about to move this six-foot distance to three-foot distance between students, but even that’s not possible when our school is so small. I just don’t think it’s good enough what we are doing.”

When it’s difficult to maintain distance, as it is in Philadelphia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “screening testing” — random testing of all students, not just those with symptoms, as a virus mitigation strategy in K-12 schools.

​​“Going to classes in the hallways, there’s plenty of students walking by and walking past you. And we’re all packed in the lunch lines like sardines, just to get some curly fries,’ said Kara Butler, a 12th-grader at Lankenau High School, who is the chief editor of The Bullhorn. “I don’t know about that. I’m a little nervous.”

The district created a remote option for families who still felt uneasy about in-person learning. The deadline to apply through the Philadelphia Virtual Academy has passed. It has been reported that the number of students registered for the remote option is 2,600. None of the students who participated in the roundtable enrolled to stay in virtual learning.

Ellie Zdancewic, a junior at Masterman High School and a member of UrbEd, said she’s torn about returning. “Going back to school will be my biggest risk throughout the entire pandemic, because in the beginning when we were at home, I wasn’t going anywhere. And then mask wearings became prevalent, and then I got vaccinated, and so I felt safer. But then the delta variant hit and now I’m going to school with many other people — it’s uncharted waters for me.”

Sophia Roach, a senior at the Creative and Performing Arts High School, said with virtual learning students could control their exposure to the virus. “But now in person we can’t control if we’re exposed to someone who maybe had a really large party and got COVID and we wouldn’t know until after the fact.”

Another safety concern for school officials is protecting students from the gun violence that has occurred in Philadelphia this year.  City officials laid out a series of steps with the district’s safety department to ensure students get to and from school safely after a summer of gun violence. Philadelphia police said last week that 137 victims under the age of 18 have been injured in gun violence this year. Thirty-two of those were homicides.

“It is the district’s problem because the sad reality is, every time I turn on the news, it’s a teenager being shot and teenagers go to school,” said Nevaeh Sullivan, a freshman at Central High School. “If there were more counselors, better administrative teams, better programs for these teenagers to look forward to. I feel as though there would be less killings.”

Last year, student leaders called on their representatives on the city’s school board to have the right to vote on policies affecting them, such as safety procedures. That effort fell flat due to a need for a ballot initiative to change the city charter and changing the state school code that requires board members to be at least 18 years old. 

The students said the push to give students a vote on the school board should continue.

“When you put the students on the board, but you don’t give them any sort of real power, it’s tokenism,” Butler said. “Why don’t they have a voice? The decisions you’re making are affecting them directly. So why not hear what they have to say about those decisions?”

Despite their uneasiness with COVID safety, the students who participated in the roundtable were unanimous in the sentiment that what they most look forward to as they return to in-person learning is interacting with classmates they haven’t seen in more than a year.

“I am looking forward to seeing everyone again, because I honestly forgot what most of my classmates actually look like,” said Abir Alikerar, a junior at the Academy of Palumbo and secretary for the Philly Black Students Alliance. “But I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to handle my time management after virtual learning.”

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