Updated: 10:45 a.m.
Students in the School District of Philadelphia returned to classrooms Monday for the first time in nearly a year.
As part of the district’s phased return to in-person classes, a select group of pre-K through second-grade students showed up at 53 school buildings across the city.
In total, there are about 2,600 students in this first group who will attend school twice a week in person, while completing the rest of their work online. Across all grades, 120,000 students attend district schools.
The 53 buildings that opened Monday met a list of safety criteria outlined by the district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
About 100 more elementary buildings remained closed Monday, but the district hopes to reopen all of them by March 22.
On Monday, the district, city, and union announced another 45 buildings that will reopen in one week for the youngest grades. Staff at those buildings will be asked to report back on Wednesday.
Philadelphia school children haven’t been inside public school classrooms since March 13, 2020. After a long, contentious negotiation with the city teachers union over this first phase of the reopening, Superintendent William Hite framed Monday’s return as a key milestone.
“Although the pandemic is far from over, beginning to welcome our students back … is a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Hite.
The district’s safety plan includes weekly coronavirus testing for staff and a plan to test one-fifth of children each week. Hite said school communities will be notified when someone tests positive in their buildings, but there are no plans to publicly release the overall number of tests and positives.
District teachers are also in the process of being vaccinated against COVID-19, with priority for staff serving lower grades. About 20,000 Philadelphia teachers and child care workers signed up for a vaccine through an educator vaccination program run by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. All 20,000 are expected to have received at least one shot by March 13, according to officials.
After the district reopens all buildings serving second grade and below, the tentative plan is twofold.
The first part is to offer all parents of pre-K through second-grade students a chance to choose the two-day-a-week, in-person option. Current eligibility is limited to those who opted for a return to classrooms in a November survey.
At the same time, district officials say, they’ll work toward welcoming back another subset of students, including those with disabilities, those learning English, and high school students taking technical courses that require hands-on learning.
Hite says he’d like to give all students the option to attend some in-person classes before the school year ends in early June, but he isn’t committing to that.
“We will continue to move forward and get as many children back as possible,” said Hite.
At some point, Hite added, there are “diminishing returns” when it comes to bringing students back into buildings, a reference to the fact that the end of the school year is just three months away.
“We’d like to have all schools open. I wish I had a magic wand and could do that,” said Mayor Jim Kenney on Monday.
Without providing details, Kenney also added that he’d like — at some point — to see “an extended school year for everybody” so students could make up for the shortcomings of virtual classes.
“But it’s a matter of cost and getting it done,” said Kenney.
On Monday, a swarm of media and officials awaited the few dozen children who returned to Juniata Park Academy in North Philadelphia Monday morning.
Of the roughly 300 students at the school eligible to return, 68 opted for in-person learning in the fall survey.
The district’s plan is for about half of students to be in the school on a given day while the other half learn from home. That meant on Monday, only about 34 students showed up at Juniata Park Academy.
Among them was second-grader Amaiya Jones, who said she felt “a little bit happy” returning to her school building for the first time in a year.
“I didn’t really like school” before the pandemic, said Amaiya. “But I guess I do now.”
Amaiya said she didn’t remember much of the school building she left last year, only that it was “pretty big.”
Her mom, Victoria Jones, said she was “very excited” to get Amaiya back in a physical classroom. She said her daughter struggled to focus during online school and it took a lot of effort to get her to do her work amid the distractions of home.
“It’s been a long year,” said Jones with a chuckle.
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WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.
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