It’s official: Philadelphia schools make masks optional

Philadelphia students, wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of classes.
Students arrive at Powel Elementary School for the first day of classes in September 2021. Beginning March 9, masks in Philadelphia public schools will be optional. (Kimberly Paynter / WHYY)

This story has been updated to include corrected vaccination data for 5 to 11 year olds released Tuesday night by the Philadelphia Department of Health.

Philadelphia schools will officially go mask-optional Wednesday, Superintendent William Hite announced Tuesday.

Calling vaccinations “the best protection against the spread of coronavirus,” Hite said that 86% of district staff are fully vaccinated, as are 75% of Philadelphians over the age of 12. He also noted that COVID case counts have been low for several weeks.

“Our number one priority remains safely keeping our students in school, full time and in person where we know they learn best and we recognize that this includes a responsibility to move our School District community closer to a sense of normalcy, as COVID-19 conditions allow,” Hite said in a letter to families explaining the move

However, students and staff will be required to wear masks for the week after spring break, from April 18 to April 22, as an “extra precaution,” Hite said.

Due to federal regulations, students in prekindergarten and Head Start programs will still be required to wear masks. 

The Philadelphia Department of Health confirmed last night that it had been overestimating the percentage of children in the city ages 5 to 11 who have been vaccinated. Officials said that 34.2% of children in that age group have received one dose, not 53.6% as previously reported by the city.

“No one is more disappointed than we are at this error, but we have corrected it and instituted new measures to ensure that any future problems are caught before they go live,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole.

Earlier, citing the possibility of the lower rate, Jerry Jordan, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that “it would be wise for the district to reevaluate entering into a mask-optional phase until such time as vaccination rates amongst our students increase.” 

The city health department looks at four local metrics to determine masking requirements and other COVID policies: cases, hospitalizations, the percentage of positive tests, and the rate of increase in cases. On Monday, the department released data showing that over the last two weeks, just 1.3% of COVID lab tests have come back positive and that the city was averaging 62 new cases a day. That’s down from as many as 500 new cases a day in early February and nearly 3,000 a day in January.

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Hite noted that some people will continue to wear masks even though it will no longer be mandatory. 

“Please thoughtfully consider your personal situation and family circumstances, and do what is best for you or your child – and respect everyone else’s right to do the same, even if their choice differs from yours,” he said.

At the end of February, the district relaxed its COVID testing protocols for staff, ending all testing of vaccinated personnel and reducing testing for the unvaccinated from twice to once a week. It has never regularly tested students without symptoms, but will continue to test students who show symptoms in school.

Citing the sharp drop in cases, the city dropped its mask mandate for most indoor spaces earlier this month. Hite said the public health department will provide updated guidance for schools later this week.

Jordan, who supported the reduction of testing requirements for district staff, also called on the district to expand vaccination efforts, including school-based vaccine clinics. COVID vaccines are available to staff, students, and families at five high schools around the city. 

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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