School district pushes back reopening date

Superintendent William Hite, shown at George W. Nebinger School in Bella Vista on Feb. 11, told reporters he was “deeply disappointed” about the decision to postpone plans to reopen public schools.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Once again, the School District of Philadelphia is postponing the start date of its in-person return, as mediation continues between the school system and teachers union over COVID-19 safety procedures.

About 9,000 pre-K to 2nd grade students who were set to begin a hybrid schedule Monday will be waiting until March 1, district leaders said Wednesday.

In a letter to parents, Superintendent William Hite, who told reporters he was “deeply disappointed” about the move, said the shift was made “due to ongoing third-party mediation requested by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.”

PFT President Jerry Jordan called the rescheduling “the right decision,” adding that it is “unfortunate and disappointing” that Hite is blaming the union for the change of plans.

“Our goal of returning to school buildings when it is safe to do so also remains unchanged,” Jordan said in a statement. “Students and staff cannot learn and teach if they are ill or worse.”

The PFT triggered the mediation process in the days before teachers were due to report to school buildings Feb. 8.

Jordan’s members have continued to work remotely as both sides await a decision from the third-party adjudicator, Dr. Peter Orris, a Chicago-based public health expert who was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney’s office.

There is no timeline for when Orris will issue his decision.

“In arguing about the whys or the why nots, we’re simply talking past each other,” Hite told City Council during a virtual hearing Wednesday. “In service to our children, it is time to start working together to return them to classrooms safely.”

Hite acknowledged that there are “legitimate concerns” that need to be addressed. He maintained that all 150 schools that would have opened Monday are safe but said he is willing to only reopen a portion of those if necessary.

“We can all agree that at least some of the buildings are safe, so let’s find common ground to prioritize the opening of these buildings,” Hite said.

Public schools in Philadelphia have been shuttered for nearly a year, and Hite said the lack of in-person learning is taking a heavier toll on minority students and those who live in poverty.

Chief among the PFT’s concerns is ventilation, an issue that educators have been discussing for months. Few, if any, were satisfied when the district turned to window fans to improve airflow at aging buildings.

Dr. David Rubin, director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab, which has been advising school systems during the pandemic, said ventilation is not a primary component in safely returning to classrooms.

Rather, an approach that prioritizes masking, hand washing, distancing and keeping sick children home has proven to significantly minimize COVID-19 spread in schools, he said during the Council hearing.

“The window of opportunity has opened for returning more children to the classrooms, particularly in our large cities,” Rubin said, adding that he expects declining infection rates to continue trending downward into the spring.

CHOP will be providing Philadelphia public schools with a stockpile of rapid antigen tests, district officials announced Wednesday.

Teachers and other staff will be tested for the virus on a weekly basis, as will students who cannot wear masks or practice social distancing because of a disability.

For the rest of the students, about 20% will be tested every week, with the entire population tested at the end of five weeks, according to the district. In addition, any students showing COVID-19 symptoms will be swabbed.

Officials said the test will be a quick nasal swab, not a deep-sinus test.

Parents will be required to sign a consent form allowing their child to be tested. Anyone who doesn’t agree to testing will have to continue with virtual learning, the district said.

Families will receive their child’s results through email or text, typically within an hour of the test, according to the school system’s website.

If a student tests positive, they will be taken to a special waiting room to be picked up, and the district will be working with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to do contact tracing.

CHOP, which has partnered with the city to inoculate all school-based personnel, began inviting teachers and other staff Wednesday to set up appointments to get vaccinated at one of seven sites.

Hite said the district will be prioritizing employees who have already been reporting to buildings, such as principals and custodial staff, and pre-K to 2nd grade teachers and support professionals. That group includes about 10,000 people, he added.

Other sections of the district’s workforce will have access to the vaccine in subsequent phases.

CHOP is also inoculating people who work at private, Catholic and charter schools.