PHILADELPHIA - The Philadelphia School District will begin welcoming a limited number of students back into the classroom on Feb. 22, Superintendent William Hite announced on Wednesday.
The phased return to hybrid learning will begin with preK-2nd grade students and include two days of in-person instruction and three days of digital learning. Teachers will return to schools to prepare for in-person learning on Feb. 8.
Families who chose the hybrid model during the selection process last fall will be in the first wave of students welcomed back. Students who chose to stay entirely digital during the fall selection process will need to stay virtual for the time being.
Dr. Hite said families "will have the chance to opt-in at a later date when we can safely phase in more students." Conversely, students who partake in hybrid learning can switch to digital at any point, according to the district.
Most schedules will follow the staggered AA/BB pattern to reduce the number of people inside the building for social distancing. In order for a safe and efficient return to school, the district is asking families to ensure students only show up on their scheduled days.
"Safety and family choice are our highest priorities as we slowly phase into in-person learning," Dr. Hite said.
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"We have been preparing for this transition since Spring 2020, and take very seriously the responsibility of putting multiple, proven layers of safety in place to safeguard the health and well-being of our students and staff."
In a Wednesday release, the district highlighted a number of enhanced cleaning and mitigation efforts to ensure the safety of students and staff. The district says it has bolstered its stockpile of PPE to support mandatory mask-wearing. Classroom and bathroom configurations have been adjusted, and room occupancy signs will help safe distancing.
"Ventilation assessments by certified air balancers also have been completed in all schools to assess air flow and help determine safe occupancy levels in each room," according to the district.
The district says its also placed touchless hand sanitizer stations and hydration stations in schools. Offices have been outfitted with plexiglass barriers and cleaning protocols have been revamped.
Even with bolstered health and safety protocols, the district anticipates that COVID-19 cases will pop up in some schools. Philadelphia nurse Gail Carter-Hamilton, who joined Dr. Hite in a Wednesday press conference, said the science suggests it's "very rare" to see outbreaks at schools.
"We are science-based," Carter-Hamilton said. "The evidence is clear, we do see there is what we call 'in-school spread' in schools where COVID has touched the doorsteps and there has been COVID at the schools, however from what we can see that it is very limited."
School leaders believe the mitigation efforts backed by the CDC are a sufficient safeguard against an outbreak at schools. Carter-Hamilton highlighted mask-wearing, hand washing and social distancing as the tentpoles of their mitigation efforts.
Philadelphia planned to restart in-person learning in November, but a surge in new coronavirus cases pushed students to a virtual setting "until further notice." At the time, Philadelphia saw a single-day record increase of 4,361 infections.
Dr. Hite said the district would transition back to hybrid learning "only when guidance and data from the PDPH, PDE and PDH shows that we can do it safely."
Since then, two highly effective coronavirus vaccines have been approved and case totals in the city have shown recent signs of improvement. For schoolchildren, Hite said the mental toll of the pandemic played a factor in the return of hybrid learning.
"Escalating violence and feelings of isolation are all tragic consequences of the pandemic, further threatening the health and well-being of our young people," Hite said.
"Resuming in-person learning opportunities is a crucial step to help restore a much-needed sense of familiarity, community and connectedness for students and families."
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