Philly’s coronavirus response

What to know about the debate over reopening Philly schools

Balancing students needs against teacher and community COVID safety concerns.

Public school teachers rallied outside district HQ on North Broad Street

Public school teachers rallied outside district HQ on North Broad Street

Emma Lee / WHYY
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Philly teachers staged protests in the freezing cold Monday against what their union called a premature and unsafe return to in-person learning.

Coordinated by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, thousands of faculty, staff and advocates held a series of demonstrations outside schools across the city, from Wynnefield to Center City to North Philly. The day ended with a rally at the School District of Philadelphia headquarters on North Broad Street.

Staff had been expected to return to their buildings on Feb. 8, two weeks before students’ planned Feb. 22 start date.

This is Philly’s third attempt at returning to the classroom in some capacity, but teachers have not yet been offered appointments for the COVID vaccine. On Monday, Mayor Jim Kenney’s office announced pop-up vaccination clinics for teachers and childcare providers would launch at the end of February, in partnership with CHOP.

After initially threatening to discipline teachers who refused to report as directed, the School District of Philadelphia backed off when the mayor’s office stepped in Sunday night, saying a third-party mediator would intervene.

“We are awaiting next steps on the mediation process from the City so we can resolve any identified issues and proceed together without delay,” said Superintendent William Hite in a statement.

Hite’s statement emphasized that the district has spent $65 million in COVID-related safety improvements, including installing window fans to improve ventilation.

The unprecedented back and forth has exposed the challenge that comes with balancing those risks against the desire to keep the district’s most vulnerable students engaged.

Here’s a look at how the situation has unfolded over the past academic year.

Didn’t Philly try to reopen schools before?

Students and teachers have not engaged in-person since schools shuttered last spring during the onset of the pandemic.

In July, officials announced plans to reopen two to four days a week in time for the beginning of the school year on Sept. 2. Under that plan, students in pre-K to second grade as well as high-need students would engage in hybrid, physical-virtual learning. The push to reopen came after a parent survey.

At the time, schools would’ve been required to increase daily cleanings and disinfect high-touch surfaces every four hours. There was no plan to provide regular COVID testing for students or instructors, which Health Commissioner Tom Farley called impractical at the time.

Plans were nixed after a barrage of criticism from teachers, principals and parents at a School Board meeting.

Winter spike shuts down second reopening attempt

In the November iteration of the district’s reopening plan, only pre-K through second grade students were invited back to in-person learning twice a week. Teachers were set to come back on Nov. 16 and students on Nov. 30.

The late-fall attempt didn’t pan out because COVID cases were rising as the city, and the nation, entered the second wave of the virus.

What’s different this time around?

This time around, about one-third of Philly parents opted to have their children return to school in-person. The District’s February reopening plan would send about 9,000 pre-K to second grade students to school buildings for two days on in-person instruction.

Philly’s teachers’ union has remained on the forefront of reopening pushback each time, saying the district has failed to ensure teacher safety. PFT said the district should wait to reopen until teachers have been vaccinated.

The district is now waiting for the opinion of the third party mediator, who will be Peter Orris, a Chicago doctor and public health expert, according to the Inquirer.

Why are only the youngest kids scheduled to return?

School District leadership has said the city’s youngest children have the most to gain from physical instruction while also being less likely to transmit the coronavirus.

Also, new data from the District showed that children in grades K-5, and especially children moving from kindergarten to first grade, have suffered the most during virtual instruction.

What safety protections are being put in place?

Philly school buildings are notoriously old and need billions of dollars worth of physical improvements even without the pandemic.

Lack of ventilation became a serious concern in late October ahead of the November reopening schedule, and a WHYY and Chalkbeat analysis found two-thirds of city elementary schools for which data was available lacked minimum ventilation safety standards.

Since then, Philly’s studied all of its classrooms to determine whether air circulation levels were safe, something industry experts lauded. The District, however, used a standard, pre-COVID ventilation threshold.

Do window fans really work?

District staff purchased and began installing fans to improve ventilation. The tools were circulated on Twitter and criticized widely soon thereafter. Scientifically, experts told WHYY window fans can be an effective way to help minimize COVID-19 transmission, if installed correctly.

What’s the current remote learning situation?

Ahead of the fall 2020 school year, Philly launched remote access learning centers, eventually opening nearly 80 centers citywide.

The centers served more than 2,100 students as of mid-December. Several of them have closed temporarily as COVID cases were diagnosed, to avoid contributing to the spread.

Comcast also provided its lower-cost Internet Essentials program for $10 a month to qualifying families. After city officials and education advocates called on Comcast to increase the speed of that program, saying the 25 megabits per second rate was too slow for multiple household users, the telecom conglomerate doubled the program’s internet speed.

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

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