Philly public schools to bring back 3rd to 5th graders

Students return to school in Philadelphia
REUTERS/Hannah Beier

About 29,000 Philadelphia public school students will be eligible to return to in-person classes next month for the first time in more than a year, officials said Thursday.

Students in grades 3 to 5, as well as those with complex needs in grades 6 to 8, will have the opportunity to come back into their schools buildings beginning April 29, in what the School District of Philadelphia is calling the second phase of its hybrid learning plan.

Families will have the chance to pick the hybrid model, in which students have in-person classes two days a week, during a selection window that will run from April 6 to April 13.

Students can remain 100% virtual, and any child whose parent does not fill out an emailed survey will continue with full-time online classes.

Teachers and other staff who serve students in the second phase of the reopening plan are being told to report into buildings April 12 for professional development and to prepare classrooms.

Complex needs refers to students who have autism or multiple disabilities, as well as those who are deaf or hard of hearing, visually impaired or are participating in life skills support classes, according to the district.

English language learners are not included; however, the district is developing in-person opportunities for entry-level speakers, said Evelyn Nunez, the system’s chief of schools.

Administrators had said high school career and technical education students would be prioritized in a second round of reopening. Nunez said officials are in talks about how to bring them back as soon as possible.

There is no timeline for the return of students in older grades, though district leaders have maintained that they intend to try to offer in-person classes to all students this school year.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said his union’s members are happy to be back in classrooms, commenting that the “joy of teaching and learning is so much more present in face-to-face instruction.”

Following mediation that delayed the district’s in-person return, an internal process was established for the PFT to individually review the conditions of school buildings and clear them for reopening.

Most of the facilities serving 3rd to 5th graders have already been approved, and Nunez said the PFT will be evaluating 12 more schools to prepare for the hybrid model’s second phase.

“As the District looks to return additional students to buildings, we will ensure that all proper safety protocol are in place, that occupancy limits are maintained, and that we are closely monitoring any concerns that arise,” Jordan said in a statement.

District pre-K to 2nd grade students began a phased-in return March 8, and, to date, 133 elementary schools have reopened, with an additional 22 scheduled to open on April 5, following spring break.

On the same day, about 2,200 pre-K to 2nd grade students whose parents recently opted into the hybrid program will begin coming back to their schools.

By April 5, about 10,000 district pre-K to 2nd grade children, or 35% of the eligible student population, will be attending some in-person classes.

Only one elementary school, Gilbert Spruance in Oxford Circle, has yet to be cleared for reopening.

Coronavirus cases have been reported, and an outbreak at Mayfair Elementary led to a decision to close that school until April 2.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and others have called on the district to create a public COVID-19 dashboard, and Nunez said officials are committed to doing so and currently working on the technology.

In the meantime, the district has been sending letters to families and staff members when a person at their school tests positive.

A crowd-sourced dashboard maintained by teachers and parents has documented 63 total cases within Philadelphia public schools and nine infections this week.

Nunez said the district plans to maintain 6 feet of distancing within classrooms, even though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that students need only to keep 3 feet of separation in most circumstances.

“In the future, if we find out we need to explore changing the social distancing requirement in alignment to the CDC’s most latest guidance, then we would do so,” she said Thursday.

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