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July 15, 2020

Philly schools unveil COVID-19 reopening plan with hybrid digital schedule

Everyone entering district buildings will be required to wear face masks; first day of classes delayed until Sept. 2

Education Schools
Philly Schools COVID plan Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The School District of Philadelphia's COVID-19 reopening plan is built around a staggered learning system that provides a mix of in-person and digital instruction. Students will have the option of enrolling in all-digital program. School officials unveiled the plan Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Philadelphia students will return to school in the fall with a staggered, hybrid schedule with face-to-face instruction and digital learning, as well as intensive efforts to follow health guidelines that minimize the spread of COVID-19, district officials said Wednesday morning.

The "Advancing Education Safely" plan for the 2020-2021 details the steps the School District of Philadelphia will take to ensure the safety of students and staff at the city's schools. Among the many changes, the most immediate is the date for the school district's first day.

The district's goal is hold the first day of classes on Sept. 2, instead of Aug. 31, as had been previously scheduled. This will allow more time for professional development training of staff and the cleaning of buildings, which is already underway. That change is pending the school board's approval later this month.

Also, all students, staff and others entering school buildings will be required to wear face masks. Approved masks are disposable surgical masks, homemade fabric masks (not bandanas or cloth that needs to be held to one's face) and neck gaiters. Face shields will be permitted for special consideration on an individual basis for medical exceptions. The district will provide masks to all students and staff.

Frequent hand-washing and use of sanitizer stations will be encouraged and schools will be regularly cleaned and disinfected, officials said.

COVID-19 will be a challenge to contain and there undoubtedly will be some coronavirus infections among students and staff, Superintendent William Hite said during a press briefing Monday. The district will work closely with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to determine whether a classroom, school or even the entire system must be shut down and return to all-digital learning.

"I am confident that by working together we will be able to provide our students with the education they need and deserve," Hite said.

All schools will organize K-12 students into A and B groups. One group will attend classes in person on Mondays and Wednesdays; the other group will be in school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The days each of these groups is not in school will be for online instruction, and Friday classes will be digital for the entire district, allowing the district more time to clean its buildings, school district officials said.

Hite said the school district will make an effort to place students who are siblings in the same A or B group, but it may not be possible in every instance.

Pre-K and special education students with complex needs will receive face-to-face instruction in schools Mondays through Thursdays.

Families will have the option to enroll their children solely in the all-online Digital Academy. Those who select this option will not be able to attend school in person until the end of the first quarter, at the earliest. Students in the Digital Academy will be matched with other all-digital peers, who will be taught by a pool of teachers staffed for the online model.

Students attending school in person will be kept in classroom cohorts to minimize the amount of contact they have with others in the building, during recess and through permitted extracurricular activities. Seats will be spaced appropriately to promote social distancing, with a maximum of 25 people per classroom, and decals will be displayed throughout buildings to help guide safe practices.

Each day before school, all students and staff will be required to complete a daily health screening questionnaire to monitor and detect symptoms of COVID-19. Staff will be required to submit these forms before the start of each day.

While the district will not be testing for asymptomatic students and staff before the start of the school year, protocols in the plan have been established to respond to a positive test and regulate a safe return to the building after recovery from illness. Additional substitutes will be hired to manage anticipated absences of instructors.

If a student needs to quarantine and is asymptomatic, the student will be required to continue to attend school digitally. Attendance will be marked as though the child were attending face-to-face classes each day.

This plan, and the additional resources required, will cost the Philly district an additional $60-80 million for the 2020-2021 school year. Officials hope that the federal HEROES Act that Congress is considering will help cover the additional expenses of operating under the COVID-19 education plan.

The superintendent was critical of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, calling her "out of touch" for urging all schools to resume full-time in-person instruction. He acknowledged, however, that many families will have to navigate challenging circumstances for child care under the hybrid model.

"We know that this is difficult for everyone," Hite said. "We know it's going to require sacrifice from a lot of individuals, but that's why we kept the all-digital learning option."

Hite added that all students who have requested Chromebooks have received them, and that those who still need equipment for digital learning can request them. The district continues to work on ensuring that all students have internet access.

"The city has been very helpful in working with many of the providers," Hite said. "Not just in working on who does and doesn't have (internet), but solving the complex problems associated with that."

A survey of more than 36,000 people in the Philadelphia school system recently gauged public perception of plans to reopen schools.

Of the 15,000 parents who responded, 47% said they would send their kids back to schools under the current circumstances. If safety measures are put in place, 62% said they would let their children return.

Hite stressed that Philadelphia will work hard to balance health and safety with high quality instruction, educational equity, flexibility, and accurate and timely communication with students, employees and families throughout the upcoming school year.

"This plan is a roadmap to help us navigate our way through unprecedented circumstances," Hite said. "We have a fundamental responsibility to educate our students continually throughout the school year, and we are fully committed to doing so safely, thoughtfully and with equity and facts guiding our decision making."

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