Despite new virus cases, Philadelphia schools ‘committed’ to November reopening, district says

Mayor Jim Kenney

Mayor Jim Kenney. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

This story originally appeared on Chalkbeat.

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Despite an increase in confirmed cases of coronavirus in Philadelphia, district officials said on Tuesday they still are “committed” to reopening schools in November, after the first marking period.

District officials announced in late July that the school year would have an all-virtual start, with a tentative reopening date of Nov. 17. At the time, Superintendent William Hite said that date was just a target for a “phased in” return to in-person learning.

In a statement on Tuesday, district officials said they “remain committed to beginning this transition in November after the first marking period and are in constant communication with public health experts.”

On Tuesday, the city’s health department reported a “substantial increase” in daily case counts of COVID-19. Dr. Thomas Farley, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, said the numbers were a reason for concern. Since Monday, 250 new cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in the city, bringing Philadelphia’s numbers to 37,812 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Since August, there have been about 295 cases involving children ages birth to 9 and about 855 cases involving ages 10 to 19, according to the city. That’s less than 3% of the total.

Most of the cases involving children, however, have been outside of schools, city officials said.

District schools haven’t been open since the spring, while some Catholic schools and charter schools reopened this fall. The city’s student access centers, which opened last month and aren’t run by the school district, have reported just one case and a temporary closure at Simons Recreation Center in West Oak Lane.

“We are continuing to have isolated cases in students and staff but we have not yet seen any clusters in the K-12 schools where it is clear the spread has happened in the school,” Farley said, referring to daycare centers, private schools, universities and colleges. “It appears that most cases and perhaps all of the cases, people are bringing it to the school and not necessarily spreading it in the classroom.”

James Garrow, a spokesman for the city’s health department, said contact tracing efforts have found that a “key element” of the spread has come from social gatherings outside of the classroom.

District officials said Tuesday in a statement that they will continue to work on a plan to transition to a hybrid model, with some in-person learning, and will share more information “shortly.” That includes a reopening date.

The mayor’s office said on Tuesday that they are working with the school district about “what a move away from all-virtual education would look like” and said such a move is “still dependent upon what the disease looks like in the city.”

There is no “magic number,” however, that Philadelphia is using to make decisions, Garrow said in an email on Tuesday. “As we’ve said since the beginning of this pandemic, the trends and overall situation are much more important than any particular single data point,” he said.

In his last briefing Hite expressed concerns about funding if the district were forced to push back its reopening date. Mayor James Kenney on Tuesday vowed the city would continue to try to fund its schools the best it can.

“The city is facing a $750 million deficit and the school district is looking at $650 million,” the mayor said. “At some point in time we have to decide where our priorities are, whether we are going to develop the revenue and get the revenue to fund education or not. So that remains to be seen as to what city council, the state legislature, the federal government, and the taxpayers are willing to do.”

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