School District delays in-person reopening

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PHOTO: Melissa Mitman

School District of Philadelphia leaders have decided to move to delay the start of in-person classes, opting for virtual instruction until at least mid-November.

Officials, at least temporarily, backed away from a proposed hybrid model following an outcry from teachers, principals and some parents during an hours-long Board of Education meeting Thursday that recessed after midnight.

Before the district’s announcement late Tuesday afternoon, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents the city’s public school educators, released results of a survey that showed that about 74 percent of teachers said they wouldn’t feel safe returning for in-person instruction.

Under the revised plan, students wouldn’t go back to school buildings at all for the first marking period, which ends Nov. 17.

“These changes were not made lightly,” Superintendent William Hite said in a statement. “All of the decisions we are making due to the COVID-19 pandemic are difficult ones with no obvious answers for how to account for the many, and often competing, needs of our students, staff and families.”

The new plan will go before the Board of Education for approval on Thursday at its 4 p.m. meeting.

“We realize there are a lot of questions around how our students and staff will return to school,” Board President Joyce Wilkerson said in a statement.

“Given the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 and how it has and will continue to impact our lives, the one thing we know for certain is that we’ll have to be patient and willing to work together to ensure that the health and well-being of everyone remains our top priority,” she continued.

Earlier this month, officials rolled out a reopening plan that would have had most students return to schools twice a week starting Sept. 2, with the remainder of the time devoted to virtual instruction.

Families could also decide to enroll children in a “Digital Academy,” a 100 percent virtual program. It’s not clear a fully remote option will be available if the district transitions to the hybrid plan in November.

In a letter to parents and teachers, Hite said the district will “not be moving forward with the Digital Academy as previously proposed.” A district spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment on the program.

The original reopening plan quickly drew blowback, especially as Philadelphia and its surrounding Pennsylvania suburbs registered an uptick in coronavirus cases.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley told reporters Tuesday that a “second wave” had arrived in Philadelphia, and that the pandemic will likely get worse before it gets better.

PFT President Jerry Jordan on Tuesday, prior to the district’s announcement, called for virtual instruction for the first marking period, after the union shared the results of its survey.

“We desperately want to reopen school buildings, but unfortunately, there’s been a confluence of events–not the least of which being the virus trajectory itself–that shows that this is simply not possible,” he said in a statement.

Only 8 percent of teachers feel safe returning to buildings, and nearly 80 percent believe it would be unsafe for students, according to the survey, which polled 7,500 PFT members.

In-person instruction could be delayed beyond mid-November, based on guidance from the health department and other indicators, district officials said.

Online classes are still slated to begin Sept. 2, and students will be taught by educators from their specific school. Any students who need computers can still borrow a Chromebook from the district, and officials are working to ensure reliable internet access for families.

The district said pushing back the return of children and teachers will also allow workers to complete facilities improvements, including enhanced ventilation, a key concern raised by teachers.