February 17, 2021
Philadelphia students who were preparing to return to school buildings Monday for the first time in nearly a year will have to wait at least an additional week.
The School District of Philadelphia has postponed the resumption of in-person learning until March 1 because an arbitrator is still reviewing whether it is safe for students and teachers to return.
About 9,000 students in pre-K through second grade were expected to begin a hybrid learning model next week. But the teachers union has questioned the safety of the plan, arguing that classrooms will not be properly ventilated and demanding teachers first be vaccinated.
Mayor Jim Kenney has said teachers will not be required to return to school until mediator Peter Orris, a public health expert in Chicago, makes his decision. That means a return date could get bumped back yet again.
Superintendent William Hite insisted Wednesday that the district is ready to safely begin phasing students back into schools, emphasizing the district's health protocols.
"As parents and guardians, you know all too well that many of our students are struggling socially, emotionally and academically after engaging with their teachers and peers through a computer screen for almost a year," Hite wrote in a letter to families. "Safely returning our kids to their schools in phases is a crucial step to help restore the sense of community and connectedness that so many of our students want and need."
The district has pushed back its return date several times since unveiling plans for a hybrid model last October. Students were given the opportunity to opt into a model that includes two days of in-person classes and three days of online instruction.
Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers instructed 2,000 teachers against reporting to schools on Feb. 8, when they were to begin preparing for the resumption of in-person instruction. The district threatened to discipline any teachers who did not show up; the union requested a third-party mediator examine the safety of the school buildings.
The ongoing dispute comes as the President Joe Biden pushes to get students back in school. During a town hall Tuesday, Biden said he wanted students in Kindergarten through eighth grade back in school five days a week by the end of April. He also said teachers should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines.
Last week, the CDC revised its guidelines for reopening schools. The guidance identified five essential strategies: face masks, social distancing, hand hygiene, sanitation and improving ventilation, and isolation and quarantines. Vaccines were considered an additional layer of prevention.
The district's reopening plan will make rapid COVID-19 testing available to students and staff.
Philly school employees will be able to receive COVID-19 vaccines beginning this week through a partnership with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Hite told reporters Wednesday. Clinics will be held at CHOP, four district schools, one parochial school and an independent school.
The district has invested $65 million in personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer stations, plexiglass partitions, ventilation repairs and social distancing markers to prevent coronavirus transmission.
It has purchased 3,000 window fans that officials say generate enough fresh air to support 18 people in a classroom before taking social distancing precautions.Any room that does not meet ventilation standards will not be used for in-person instruction.
Students and staff will need to pre-screen themselves for COVID-19 symptoms before coming to school. Isolation rooms will be established for people who exhibit symptoms during the day.
Face masks will need to be worn at all times. Classrooms will need to comply with capacity limits. School buildings will undergo enhanced disinfection and cleaning.
"I want to make clear that I will continue to work collaboratively to find common ground so we can safely open as many schools as possible as quickly as possible, and help our children and families move forward from the many tragic consequences of this pandemic," Hite said.