CHOP doctors endorse return to in-person school in Philly area

The exterior of CHOP in Philadelphia

The exterior of CHOP in Philadelphia. (Children's Hospital of Philadelphia)

One of Philadelphia’s most prominent experts on how to handle schooling during the pandemic said Friday that going to school may actually reduce a child’s risk of catching the coronavirus.

Dr. Susan Coffin is a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Her remarks came during a virtual roundtable, hosted by CHOP’s PolicyLab, on what to expect for the remainder of the school year.

“Schools may be little islands of safety,” Coffin said. “Where the people who gather, if they gather in good conscience and committed to safety plans, [can] go about their day as safely as the community, but even more safely.”

That claim was supported by data she has reviewed, Coffin said, and by the experience of Rhode Island, which bucked the example of most northeastern states by beginning the school year with most students in classrooms and staying the course as community transmission has risen.

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Rhode Island’s top K-12 official, Angélica Infante-Green, also participated in the discussion. She said that their data shows that students in distance learning have been testing positive for COVID at higher rates than those in the school system.

CHOP has been providing guidance to officials around school reopening across southeastern Pennsylvania during the pandemic: its warnings of a potentially catastrophic surge in November led officials to delay a return to in-person schooling, or send students home for a few weeks.

Prior to that, in May, the lab offered guidelines for reopening in the fall, while saying the evidence at the time was “pretty weak” that school closures were a vital part of fighting the coronavirus.

Coffin’s comments Friday come at a tense time for Philadelphia’s education community.

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Philadelphia is now averaging about 3,500 new COVID cases a week. That’s a 50% drop from the city’s peak in early December, but still significantly more than when the pandemic first hit last spring.

While many suburban school districts have resumed some in-person classes, the School District of Philadelphia has kept its buildings shuttered since March. The district has been planning a return to in-person instruction for some students, an idea that’s divided parents.

A WHYY review of district survey data from November showed that preference for remote or in-person school did not track easily along lines of race or income.

On Thursday, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said a return to classrooms should be delayed until school staff are vaccinated. It could take until May for all teachers to receive both of their vaccine shots.

David Rubin, the doctor who runs CHOP’s PolicyLab, said Friday he did not think the union’s demand was supported by science.

“We have a lot of essential workers that put themselves at risk every day,” he said. “I think we can safely provide an environment for staff to teach.”

On Friday evening PFT President Jerry Jordan said in a statement that teachers want to be back in the classroom — ”when it’s safe to do so.”

“As the District looks to a staggered reopening model, we believe that school staff being asked to return should be prioritized for the vaccine,” he said.

Rubin and Coffin said that one key to safely resuming in-person instruction was a comprehensive program to frequently test students and staff for coronavirus.

In December, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said regular testing would be available for any student or staff member that wanted it once schools reopened. The district hasn’t offered an update on its testing plan since.

CHOP has quietly rolled out its own rapid testing program in recent weeks: “Project ACE-IT.” The program provides weekly testing to students and staff at schools that have partnered with the hospital, with results in fifteen minutes.

“This is incredibly powerful,” Coffin said “We can find out in fifteen minutes if [a student] has a generic common cold or coronavirus.”

So far, Lower Merion and North Penn school districts in Montgomery County have confirmed they are working with CHOP. Rubin said the hospital is currently in talks with the city of Philadelphia and officials in all of its collar counties about bringing the program to their schools as well, but would not confirm specifics.

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