School reopening put on hold “until further notice”

Dr William Hite
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said the school system will not be returning for in-person classes later this month as planned.

Philadelphia public school students will not be returning for in-person classes later this month as planned, due to sharp increases in novel coronavirus case counts.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite made the announcement Tuesday, as the city reported 879 new COVID-19 infections — all-time high — and Pennsylvania also hit a single-day record of 4,361.

Hite said he knows the decision will be disappointing for students and families who were looking forward to returning to classrooms after an eight-month absence.

“Transitioning to hybrid learning and having students engaged in face-to-face instruction with teachers is our goal, but our top priority is the health and well-being of our students and our staff,” he said during a press briefing Tuesday.

The move to a hybrid model is on hold “until further notice,” Hite said.

District leaders had been preparing to implement a plan in which students in pre-K to second grade would be able to go into school buildings twice a week, with the other days reserved for online learning.

Parents were required to opt in to the hybrid plan, and about 10,000, a third of eligible students, indicated they were interested in face-to-face instruction.

Families that did sign up will be automatically enrolled when the district shifts to a hybrid model in the future, Hite said.

Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said the city supports the move but that the decision was ultimately made by district leaders.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine indicated Monday that the state will not be shutting down all schools, as it did in the spring, preferring to leave the call to local authorities.

Farley said the health department is not yet recommending that schools offering in-person instruction switch to a completely online system.

Ninety-five K-12 parochial, charter and independent schools have reopened their buildings in Philadelphia, he said, and only three have had outbreaks in which the virus appears to have spread in the classroom.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had been raising safety concerns about in-person teaching, and the union’s president, Jerry Jordan, on Tuesday applauded the decision to remain virtual.

“The science of COVID-19, paired with the massive ventilation and other facilities issues throughout the District, makes it clear: returning to school buildings, in any capacity, is unsafe right now,” Jordan said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Farley said the number of people hospitalized with the virus in Philadelphia has doubled over the past two weeks, to 386.

“That number is increasing fairly rapidly,” he said. “We are increasingly concerned that hospitals may come under strain if this rate of increase continues.”

On a call with reporters, Farley repeatedly said Philadelphia is entering “a dangerous period.” Last week, the city averaged 515 new cases a day, the most since the beginning of the pandemic.

Part of it is due to more testing; however, the positive test rate has quadrupled since late-September, and it now stands at 9.3%, a threshold last breached in May.

Virus-related deaths have increased slightly and are expected to continue rising. Officials reported 12 Tuesday, bringing the city’s total to 1,901.

The infection is spreading at visits with family, social gatherings, offices and restaurants offering indoor dining, Farley said.

“Behavior that was once safe is now dangerous,” he said. “Things you could get away with a couple months ago, you can’t get away with now. You’re much more likely to get infected.”

Officials have not announced new restrictions, but Farley said residents should be prepared for limits on certain activities.

“What we want to do is do the minimum amount of restrictions that would work,” he said, adding that no options were off the table.

In other COVID-19-related news, officials said Tuesday that 64,000 households in the city have not claimed their CARES Act stimulus checks, leaving an estimated $77 million in limbo.

The money was distributed by the federal government earlier this year, with individuals receiving $1,200.

Most people who did not receive checks need to provide additional information to the Internal Revenue Service. It’s likely they haven’t filed tax returns because they have little or no income, officials said.

The deadline to request the Economic Impact Payments is Sunday, Nov. 21, and people who have not claimed their checks should visit and select the IRS Non-Filer Tool.

Jefferson Health has opened its public COVID-19 testing site as part of a city-funded initiative to increase access to testing.

The location, which is at Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School, 5701 Lindbergh Blvd. in Southwest Philadelphia, operates from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays.

Testing is free and will be billed to a patient’s insurance company. Uninsured residents should bring identification. Walk-ins are accepted, or people can make an appointment by calling 833-533-3463.

The other site is at St. Raymond of Penafort Church, in the school parking lot at 7940 Williams Ave. in East Mount Airy.