Nearly a year later, students return to classrooms at Mastery, Philly’s largest charter

Students return to John Wister Elementary School

Students return to John Wister Elementary School in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood for the first week of in-person learning since the pandemic began on March 3, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s largest charter school network is bringing students back into the classroom this week for the first time since last March.

Mastery Charter Schools, which operates 18 schools in Philadelphia, is expecting the return of roughly 1,250 students enrolled in kindergarten through second grade twice a week, as well as an undisclosed number of students in grades three through twelve who require special accommodations.

The reopening is a miniature version of what may play out next week, when the School District of Philadelphia welcomes up to about 2,600 of its youngest students back into classrooms in 53 schools. That transition was delayed multiple times, most recently due to objections from the teachers union.

Deneen Kennedy stands with her son, Amari, outside
Mom Deneen Kennedy drops off her son, Amari, 6, for the first day of in-person learning at John Wister Elementary School in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At Mastery’s John Wister Elementary school in Germantown Wednesday morning, the air crackled with first-week-of-school energy.

Music blared through speakers as parents and teachers greeted each other face-to-face for the first time in a year. Mask-wearing children bounded up to the school nurse to get their temperatures checked before heading to class.

“That human touch is just so essential to the school experience,” said Ashley Langston, the school’s principal. “While we aren’t necessarily able to physically touch each other yet, the presence of another has truly just been phenomenal.”

Quiet classrooms

Inside, construction-paper art decorated the halls of the school with reminders to keep six feet apart. Distorted announcements echoed off of the concrete walls urging students to “follow all safety protocols.”

Inside the classrooms, the difference between this and normal school years was more pronounced.

On Wednesday morning, second grade teacher Alicia Bunch’s classroom was nearly empty.

A student, wearing a face mask, sits at an isolated desk at school
Despite parents opting for hybrid learning, some are keeping children home during the first week of learning at John Wister Elementary Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A single student quietly plugged away at her math problem at a desk surrounded by a plastic safety shield.

It’s not what Bunch had expected: The families of five other students had signed up to be there in-person that day as well.

“It’s been a little slow with the kids coming in,” Bunch said.

A student, wearing a face mask, sits at an isolated desk at school
Teachers at John Wister Elementary Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia are teaching virtually and in person. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

About half of the families of Wister’s 500 students elected to send their children back to the classroom. But Wednesday morning, roughly 10% of the students expected did not attend.

Wister, like many other Philadelphia public schools, serves a mostly Black population. In a recent national poll, Black respondents overwhelmingly favored keeping schools closed until every teacher who wanted a vaccine received one, something that has not happened yet in Philadelphia.

People’s opinions about school reopening, though, do not always break down neatly by lines of race and class.

Kindergarten teacher Katie Trott wears a clear face mask inside the classroom
Kindergarten teacher Katie Trott wears a clear mask to help students learn to read at John Wister Elementary Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At Wister, administrators say there is an “active” waitlist for in-person spots. And Bunch is confident more of her students will return this week.

“I think they will come around,”she said. “I’ve been taking pictures of our set-up, how safe we are, and all the measures we are taking to keep little ones safe.”

Mastery has spent $3 million upgrading its school buildings’ HVAC systems and purchasing air cleaning units, according to its website. It is also providing free COVID-19 tests to all students and staff weekly, something Bunch said helped her overcome some initial reluctance to return.

Nurse Paris tests Principal Langston for COVID-19 in the gymnasium
Nurse Paris tests Principal Langston for COVID-19 in the gymnasium of John Wister Elementary Mastery Charter School in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Students and staff are tested weekly. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Now that we are here and actually doing it, the educator in me kicked in and I’m like: ‘This is where we are supposed to be,’” she said.

Educators in Philadelphia began getting vaccines last week as part of a city partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

In its most recent agreement with the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers agreed not to delay returning until all members were fully inoculated.

At Wister, Bunch’s biggest challenge of the day in the classroom was more academic than medical. She had to balance her focus between the student in front of her, and the twenty-seven others on screen still learning virtually. As she puts it: the “roomies and zoomies.”

Alicia Bunch, wearing a face mask, stands inside a classroom
Alicia Bunch is a second grade teacher at John Wister Elementary Mastery Charter School in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“For instance, when my one student just finished her morning work, I gave her a prize,” Bunch said. “Now how am I supposed to give a virtual prize?”

Finding that balance has been difficult for teachers in Philadelphia’s suburbs as well. There is little data on the efficacy of this kind of “hybrid” teaching.

Bunch is already brainstorming ways to make sure she stays engaged with her virtual learners, as more students trickle back into the classroom.

“No matter if they are in front of you, or they are on the screen, they still need you,” she said.

‘Excited to be here’

For the families and students who did opt to return to Wister, Wednesday morning felt like a celebration.

“We were excited to be here,” said Jessica Ray, who was there to drop off her six-year-old daughter Sarena for her first day of in-person kindergarten. “We were here way before it started, waiting in the car!”

For Ray, virtual school has been a nightmare. The 32-year-old single mother had a stroke two years ago, making it difficult for her to assist her four school-age children with their schooling.

Sarena stands with her mom outside
6-year-old kindergarten student Sarena said she was excited to return to in-person learning at John Wister Elementary School in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. Her mom Jessica Cray was excited for her daughter to interact with other children besides her siblings. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I have brain challenges,” she said. “Trying to do the regular daily tasks, for them to do their work, has been a challenge for me.”

Sarena was excited for her first day in the classroom too, and planned to give her friends “a big, big hug.”

Her mom quickly jumped in: “I don’t know about hugs, maybe elbow bumps instead.”

Sarena nodded and smiled. An elbow bump isn’t exactly what she wanted. But at this point, any connection sounded pretty good.

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