‘It’s made planning nearly impossible’: Philly teachers scramble in district’s partial return

A sixth grade boy listens to a lecture, wearing a black mask and dark-colored shirt. He has a red composition notebook in front of him on the desk, and two other students sit behind him.
With almost half of district schools going virtual, Philadelphia teachers describe challenges in planning instruction for students following the winter break. (Carson TerBush / Chalkbeat)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Last week, when the Philadelphia school district abruptly shifted a third of its schools to remote learning, Charlie McGeehan, a social studies teacher, found out at 7:30 p.m. Monday that his school, Academy at Palumbo, was among them. His classes, suddenly virtual, started at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

After work Friday, he learned his school would be open for in-person instruction this week. 

“It’s made planning nearly impossible,” he said. “Not knowing whether we’ll be virtual or in person, not knowing how many kids I’ll see.” 

District officials want to keep as many schools open for in-person learning as possible, despite a COVID surge that has made it difficult to staff schools because teachers and other employees have gotten sick or had to quarantine. This week, nearly half of the district’s 216 schools are operating remotely until Friday – with 36 schools announced over the weekend, three added Monday afternoon and four added Monday night – and many teachers have said the last-minute decision-making has made it difficult to plan their lessons and teach.

After parents and teachers criticized the rollout last week as chaotic, district officials set consistent times to announce which schools would shift to virtual instruction; those are now at 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. daily.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has called for the entire district to stay virtual until the end of this week, to give more time for the omicron surge to slow. But the district is adamant about keeping as many schools open in person as possible, saying that is better for students. 

The city has seen, on average, 2,978 positive cases per day in the last two weeks, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on Monday. During that time, 31.5% of COVID tests in Philadelphia have come back positive.

But Philadelphia Health Secretary Dr. Cheryl Bettigole has said the city’s school children are best served by in-person learning, and in-school spread has been low. “When we do see cases in schools, the majority of those cases are not coming from in-school transmission,” she said.

Still, with spiking COVID case numbers, many students have been absent, making teaching and learning a challenge. 

Ethan Tannen, a math teacher at Julia R. Masterman High School, which has been in person, said some students have not returned to class since the winter break.

“I think that there’s just some general apprehension amongst the students and some of the families, regarding the transmission numbers and the positive test numbers and the fact that we’re in a school with 33 kids in a lot of classes and it can be hard to be really socially distanced.”

Tannen said he tries to limit the types of activities where students at the special admissions school are mixing and mingling, “which can sometimes be the most engaging time in the classroom.” He noted students “have been quite good about masking.”

At Academy at Palumbo, McGeehan said it would have been easier to plan instruction if the district had announced two weeks of virtual learning after the winter break. His approach varies based on whether his students are in person or remote, he said.

“When we’re online, I try to assign things that are a lot more asynchronous and a lot less discussion-based. In person, we read and watch and discuss things together,” he said. 

It takes time, he said, to switch plans for the next day. 

Some of his students, who have been isolated because of COVID, were able to attend virtually last week, and most did, he said. This week, with in-person instruction, “they obviously can’t be here.”

Conversely, many of the teachers who were out for COVID-related reasons could teach last week, but can’t this week in person. 

Spruance Elementary School in the Northeast, which has 1,200 students, has been virtual since Jan. 4. Gemeyel Keyes, a paraprofessional who assists in a special education classroom, said that very few of the 12 students assigned to the kindergarten-to-second-grade classroom are logging in. He also criticized the district’s last-minute, school-by-school decision making as leading to disruption and confusion.  

“This past week was so chaotic, parents are not prepared to go virtual,” Keyes said. 

Last week, one child logged in between Jan. 4 and Jan. 6. On Jan. 7, there were three. Two students logged in Monday, he said.

Some families “don’t know how to access the program or navigate the [virtual] classroom,” Keyes said. “Honestly, we’re delivering instruction in the best way we can. We’re doing things on the fly.” 

Kate Sannicks-Lerner, a kindergarten teacher and union representative at Julio DeBurgos Elementary, which has been remote since last week, said 19 staff members called out Monday.

Sarahn Santana, who teaches African American history and English at Parkway Northwest High School, has been in person since Jan. 4, when the school resumed after winter break. She estimates that probably two-thirds of the students are attending.

Unlike last year, the district hasn’t asked teachers to teach students in person and online simultaneously – but some are doing it anyway. In one class, Santana said she had 10 students in person on Monday and five online. 

“We care about our students, we don’t want them to fall behind,” especially since it is close to the end of the marking period, she said, adding “I’m trying my best to make it work.”

Sonny Bavaro teaches English to 12th graders at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush, which has stayed in person so far. On Monday the attendance rate was 63%, he said. Normally, he said, it never drops below 95%.

While some students have COVID or are quarantining, others are staying home out of fear they will contract the virus and infect vulnerable family members, Bavaro said.   

His biggest concern about learning “is equity,” he said. “I can teach the kids who are in front of me and provide materials for kids who are out,” but the students at home are at a disadvantage.

To try to compensate, Bavaro has been meeting with some kids via Zoom during lunch or after school in an effort “to get them connected with what we’re doing,” he said. 

Plus, as an arts school, instruction is usually project-based, and that is harder to do with a shifting cast of students, and in this atmosphere of uncertainty. “We could shut down tomorrow,” he said.

The district follows the guidance of the health department and the Policy Lab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which say that students not having the consistency of in-person school is a bigger public health issue than omicron. The variant has been shown to be mild, especially in children, health officials said.

Several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat also said they are concerned by the low rate of vaccination among their students. Most young people between the ages of 5 and 18 in Philadelphia are not vaccinated. About a quarter of those ages 5 to 11, and half of those 12 to 17 have gotten at least one shot, as of last week, according to the health department. 

The district has mandated that staff be vaccinated, unless they are granted a valid religious or medical exemption, and the PFT estimates that 85% are vaccinated. 

But there is no mandate for students – although vaccinated students who are a close contact of someone who tests positive don’t have to be quarantined for ten days, while unvaccinated students do.

Keyes, Santana and Bavaro all said that there is vaccine hesitancy among the students they teach and their families – but many also are afraid of the virus and aren’t sending their children to school.

“Our attendance is low, but we do have students continue to log in virtually,” said Santana. “So this just shows that many of our students and parents don’t feel safe.” 

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