Philadelphia public school reopening nears

Ron Keren, the chief medical officer at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, speaks to reporters Thursday, March 4, at South Philadelphia High School.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Philadelphia public school teachers returned to buildings Wednesday to prepare for the district’s first in-person classes in nearly a year.

About 2,560 pre-K to 2nd grade students at 53 schools deemed safe by the teachers’ union will begin coming back twice a week starting Monday. It’s the School District of Philadelphia’s fifth attempt at reopening.

“This is not a date that we intend to move back from,” Superintendent William Hite said during a press briefing Thursday. “As a matter of fact, we intend to announce the next wave of schools on Monday.”

Approximately 9,000 education workers have been vaccinated so far in Philadelphia. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Under a mediator-facilitated agreement, administrators have provided facility data to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which will be reviewing whether specific schools are safe for re-occupancy.

The goal, Hite said, is to reopen 50 schools a week and have start dates for all 152 buildings serving pre-K to 2nd grade by March 22.

“We’re going to continue to work to bring children back,” he said. “We hope to get to young people in high school before the end of this school year.”

Union representatives have said they will be analyzing air flow and asbestos-related ventilation concerns in determining which buildings to ‘clear’ for an in-person return.

Some teachers who returned Wednesday shared posts on social media showing poor conditions inside schools; Hite, however, said that information had not reached him.

“Knock on wood, we haven’t heard much,” he said, adding that teachers have been invited to report concerns to the district.

There were no reports of mass absences or staffing issues Wednesday, according to Hite.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is inoculating teachers and other school personnel at several sites across the city. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Gov. Tom Wolf this week said Pennsylvania plans to use initial shipments of the recently-approved Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to inoculate teachers, a day after President Joe Biden said educators should be prioritized as a way to reopen more schools.

State officials said clinics distributing the one-shot vaccines to teachers should open next week. Pennsylvania is expected to receive 94,600 J&J doses in the coming days.

School personnel with the most in-person contact will be prioritized along with those who work with elementary school students, students with disabilities and English language learners.

The Pennsylvania National Guard and AMI Expeditionary Healthcare, a state contractor, are being mobilized to help establish regional vaccination centers as part of the initiative, according to the Wolf administration.

In Philadelphia, which is handling its own inoculation campaign, school-based employees have been receiving vaccines since Feb. 22 as part of a partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

CHOP’s chief medical officer, Ron Keren, said 9,000 education workers have been vaccinated so far, and a total of 20,000 people have set up appointments.

He said CHOP is adding additional slots, as the original appointment list has filled up.

Superintendent William Hite, right, speaks to Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley Thursday, March 4, at South Philadelphia High School. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Invitations have been sent out to 35,000 public, private, Catholic and charter school employees, as well as those who work in daycare centers, Keren added.

Doses are now being distributed at six school-based sites, including South Philadelphia and Archbishop Ryan high schools, and CHOP is administering 1,500 to 1,800 a day, according to Keren.

Participants are receiving the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, and the plan is for all who signed up to be fully vaccinated over the next four weeks.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said teachers who do not receive the injection through CHOP will have opportunities to get vaccinated at the federally-backed site at the Pennsylvania Convention Center or elsewhere.