Philly’s coronavirus response

Nearly 30% of Philly’s remote learning centers have closed for COVID. Staff are raising safety concerns.

Several are located in old buildings with sketchy ventilation.

A sign at the Access Center set up inside Vogt Rec Center

A sign at the Access Center set up inside Vogt Rec Center

Emily Rizzo / WHYY
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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As of mid-December, 22 of Philly’s Access Centers for remote school learning have had to temporarily close because of coronavirus exposure, nearly 30% of the total.

Four of the 77 are currently shut down due to COVID cases among students, staff or parents, city officials confirmed.

Some staffers have been worrying there aren’t enough safeguards in place to protect them from the pandemic. “It scares me,” said a Parks and Recreation employee who runs one of the centers.

The staffer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, agreed that the shutdowns make sense: “I’d rather take two weeks off than die, to be honest with you.” But they and some colleagues are asking for more safeguards to prevent these cases in the first place.

Intended to give K-6 students a safe space and a good internet connection, the free centers opened at the start of the 2020-21 academic year. They’re hosted at facilities run by the Parks & Rec, the Free Library and a handful of community centers.

In total, the Access Centers have 2,105 students enrolled, are organized into cohorts of 25 or fewer. All locations require PPE, and mandate daily temperature and symptom checks, according to city spokesperson Heather Keafer.

When the centers were first set up, the coronavirus was at an all-time low in Philadelphia. By the end of October, only two sites had been forced to close for quarantine.

Even at that point, staff had concerns. Vogt recreation leader Debbie Darroyo told WHYY she struggled with students who didn’t want to wear masks. “They might be away in the weekend, they might go to a state where they’re not supposed to be. I don’t know that,” Darroyo said.

As the city experienced a fall wave of rising cases, positive diagnoses have rippled through many of the sites.

Access Centers in Olney, Harrowgate and Lower Mayfair have all temporarily closed recently. Some sites, like MLK Rec Center in North Philly and the Salvation Army in Lawncrest, have had to close twice. The Shane Victorino Boys and Girls Club reopened on Nov. 19 after its first closure, then had to shut its doors again eight days later — and then three days later, it closed a third time.

Some who work at the centers are asking the city for specific changes to ensure their own safety, and say they’re frustrated over lack of communication.

“The department hasn’t told us anything,” the  Parks & Rec staffer told Billy Penn, adding that they’ve worked in the department more than 25 years. “We’ve all found this out ourselves. We found out through word of mouth.”

One issue raised by staff is the spacing implemented inside the centers, and whether it’s distant enough to actually be safe — especially considering many of the buildings are older and lack good ventilation.

To determine how many students could fit, original measurements were taken by facility managers, the Parks & Rec staffer said. The final capacity calculations, they alleged, didn’t account for the supervisors themselves, or for furniture that can’t be moved.

They’re asking for the city to deploy Department of Public Health experts to conduct new measurements, better ensuring the appropriate number of people are allowed at each site.

The staffer also said that because of ancient HVAC systems in some rec centers, open windows are the only means of circulating air. In other buildings, they said, windows are bolted shut.

In total, the Access Centers have seen 27 coronavirus cases among students and staff, officials said.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said he believes the sites are safe. “Children almost never get seriously ill from COVID, and the education of children is crucial to our future,” he said at a November press briefing.

Access Center closures since September 

  • Simons Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Sept. 20 to Oct. 1
  • The Salvation Army (Citadel Corps), Sept. 20 to Oct. 1
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Oct. 26 to Nov. 9
  • Asian Arts Initiative, Nov. 6 to Nov. 19
  • Widener Branch, Free Library of Philadelphia, Nov. 8 to Nov. 23
  • West Mill Creek Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 9 to Nov. 23
  • Pan American Academy Charter School, Nov. 10 to Nov. 30
  • Columbia North YMCA, Nov. 10 to Nov. 30
  • Kingsessing Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 11 to Nov. 30
  • Shane Victorino Boys and Girls Club, Nov. 11 to Nov. 19
  • Harrowgate PAL Center, Nov. 12 to Nov. 23
  • R.W. Brown Community Center, Nov. 13 to Nov. 30
  • Francis J. Myers Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 14 to Nov. 23
  • Ramp Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 14 to Nov. 30
  • Olney Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 14 to Nov. 30
  • Samuel Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 20 to Dec. 4
  • Lawncrest Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 23 to Dec. 7
  • Shane Victorino Boys and Girls Club, Nov. 27 to Dec. 8
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 28 to Dec. 7
  • Wharton Square, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 30 to Dec. 8
  • Lower Mayfair, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Nov. 30 to Dec. 8
  • The Salvation Army (Citadel Corps), Nov. 30 to Dec. 10
  • Blanche Nixon, Free Library of Philadelphia, Nov. 30 to Dec. 7
  • Wyoming Branch, Free Library of Philadelphia, Dec. 9 to Jan. 4
  • Bridesburg Boys and Girls Club (one out of four cohorts), Dec. 10 to Dec. 23
  • Shane Victorino Boys and Girls Club, Dec. 11 to Dec. 24
  • Bridesburg Boys and Girls Club (the second out of four cohorts), Dec. 14 to Dec. 29

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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