City Council grills Hite on reopening as return to classrooms stuck in limbo

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School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Members of city council pressed School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite on issues of public trust during a hearing Wednesday on school reopening plans.

The Children and Youth and Education committees hosted the hearing after Hite announced earlier in the day that a return to classrooms for city children would be delayed until March 1 amid a dispute with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Testimony from Hite and other district officials lasted almost two hours, as councilmembers raised concerns about safety and transparency.

Councilmember Helen Gym told Hite she’s heard “consistent articulation of a deep-seated lack of trust that the district has not made itself immediately available to ordinary families.”

She said families need a “real place” for “questions to be asked and answered,” especially regarding health and safety issues.

Councilmember Kendra Brooks added that she’s heard many people are frustrated with the district’s COVID-19 hotline, and have just stopped calling.

Brooks said she’s also heard complaints from frontline school employees who have returned to buildings about instances where staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 without that information being shared publicly.

“If the administration isn’t sharing all the information with the community, it breaks down that trust,” said Brooks.

Hite hopes his plan to host open houses at each school building will help rebuild community confidence by giving parents the chance to see classroom mitigations in person and ask questions of school leaders. He also said the contact tracing and weekly rapid testing of in-person staff will help ensure a safe return.

‘No strategy can entirely eliminate risk’

This is the district’s third attempt to bring some students back to classrooms since the initial widespread school shutdowns last March.

A plan to return 9,000 pre-k through second grade students on Feb. 22 has been in limbo after the teachers union said it would oppose returning until all members are fully inoculated against COVID-19, which could take until April.

“We do not yet believe that the District has shown us that buildings are safe for reoccupancy,” said PFT President Jerry Jordan. “Let me be very clear: This union has never, and will never, stand in the way of student progress or access to education.”

The district and the union had agreed to a plan to return to schools in the fall that did not include vaccination requirements. Union leaders say several circumstances changed since making those arrangements, including vaccines becoming available and the state loosening guidance on school reopening.

A judgment from a city-appointed mediator has been awaited for nearly two weeks, without any clear sense of how long the process will continue.

Rich Lazer, the city’s deputy mayor of labor, said he’s hoping they can get to a decision before March 1. “I know that both sides are working diligently to get there,” he said.

Hite’s return plan falls in line with guidance from city health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Testifying at the committee meeting Wednesday, Dr. David Rubin, director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s PolicyLab, reiterated his belief that reopening is safe as long as CDC safety protocols are followed.

“No strategy can entirely eliminate risk,” he said, later adding, “Vaccines should not be a precondition for opening our schools.”

CHOP, which is aiding the district’s effort to test and vaccinate staffers, said criticism of the district’s ventilation readiness doesn’t match the science of COVID transmission.

“Ventilatory changes can be helpful,” said Rubin, “even simple things like opening a window and putting in a fan, but the primary interventions are masks, distancing, hygiene, and keeping sick kids out of school.”

District officials said school nurses will perform rapid tests on 20% of in-person students each week.

Logistics related to vaccinating teachers are now in motion, with some appointment invites to staff in the first vaccination group going out Wednesday.

‘Gray area’

During an interaction with Hite, Gym expressed frustration with the shifting guidance from the state on the safety of in-person learning.

For much of the pandemic, the Pennsylvania Department of Education recommended that schools in counties with “substantial” COVID-19 transmission conduct all learning remotely.

In early January, the department changed that guidance to say that schools in these counties could offer in-person instruction to elementary-aged students. At that point, all counties had “substantial” transmission, a state-established threshold that means they recorded at least 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the preceding week.

Gym criticized the district for pursuing that option after the holiday-related surge in case counts and worries about what the threshold for acceptable cases should be when classes resume.

“We’re in this gray area in which nothing seems to apply,” said Gym.

Hite said previous health guidelines have been confusing, but that now they have a clearer idea. “We want to see how we do [with the first group], before bringing back more students,” he said.

Hite’s testimony closed with more than 50 speakers waiting to testify before the committee.

Gym said it shows the community has a thirst for this kind of public forum.

“I hope schools reopening is not just about the physical reopening of the school. It’s about helping families that have felt left behind,” she said. “We have to be able to find a means to engage, build support, and to collectively learn together.”

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