PHILADELPHIA - The Philadelphia School District announced Wednesday that it plans to resume limited in-person instruction in the fall, with most students in class just two days per week and learning remotely the other three.
District officials also warned that it’s “highly likely” that evolving COVID-19 conditions will require individual schools or even the entire district to shut down temporarily or even for the balance of the school year.
“There is no room for politics when it comes to safely educating our children and ensuring that the professionals — the adults responsible for this work — can do so without placing their health in jeopardy," Superintendent William Hite Jr. said at a virtual news conference.
“We are all living through a pandemic and there will be challenges ahead,” he said.
Both Hite and school board President Joyce Wilkerson emphasized the need for flexibility as the nation waits for a vaccine and outbreaks continue to occur.
“However diligently and thoroughly we plan for the school year ... we exist in uncertain times and will have to be flexible and nimble as we adapt to changing circumstances,” Wilkerson said.
Amid a fierce national debate over school reopenings, the Pennsylvania Department of Education Department told the state’s 500 school districts last month they can restart in-person instruction with a plan that’s approved by the local school board, made public and provided to the state.
The district’s reopening plans have been slow to trickle in, with just 125 school entities — including school districts, private and charter schools, career and technology centers, and intermediate units — having submitted them through Wednesday.
The state’s expectation “is that schools plan to offer some level of in-person instruction in the fall,” said Education Department spokesperson Nicole Reigelman. “However, those plans will look different in every education community based on local conditions and circumstances.”
The School District of Philadelphia is Pennsylvania’s largest, with an enrollment of about 200,000.
The district had hoped to offer elementary students four days of face-to-face instruction, but said that plan was too costly. Special education students with complex needs and pre-kindergarten students will be at school four days a week.
While they’re at school, students and staff will be required to wear masks, with face shields offered as an alternative for younger students, according to the plan. Masks or shields will be required on buses, as well.
The district said it wants to limit classroom occupancy to 25 “when feasible,” and that schools should install Plexiglas barriers in classrooms that aren’t big enough to space desks at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart. Hite estimated the overall plan would cost an additional $60 million to $80 million.
The teachers’ union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, polled its members last month and said that more than half favored a hybrid of in-person and online instruction. But a significant minority — over a third — said school buildings should remain closed, and students should learn remotely.
Since then, virus cases nationally have skyrocketed — though Philadelphia's infection rate has remained relatively stable — and teachers are more concerned than ever about whether a safe return is possible, said Hillary Linardopoulos, the union's legislative representative.
Teachers want to go back to class but they “very, very scared for their own safety and the safety for the children," Linardopoulos said. She said the union would gather member feedback on the district's plan and evaluate next steps.
Like many teachers in the district, high school humanities teacher Charlie McGeehan said he works in an aging building with poor ventilation and asbestos problems. Many students commute to the North Philadelphia school on public transportation. He's 33, but most of his colleagues are older and more vulnerable to the virus, he said.
“Seeing the gravity of the situation and seeing the plan, and seeing the holes in the plan, I think I've seen a shift to teachers saying I don’t think it's safe to be back in the building,” McGeehan said.
One immediate concern is how mask-wearing would be enforced and whether the schools will be able to maintain proper social distancing, Linardopoulos said.
“Our members have a well-placed skepticism that a plan written on paper is only as good as it is able to be effectively implemented," Linardopoulos said.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania.
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