Philly cancels plan to return students to classrooms as COVID-19 cases rise

Philadelphia School District headquarters

Philadelphia School District headquarters on North Broad Street. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Updated: 2:30 p.m.

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With COVID-19 cases rising in the city, Philadelphia public school officials have delayed plans to bring some students back into school buildings on Nov. 30.

A memo sent from principals and another sent by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan to school district staff indicate that the reopening plan is on hold.

“In order to help safeguard the health and well-being of our staff, students and families, the School District of Philadelphia has determined that all schools will remain fully virtual at this time,” according to a note sent from principals to district families. “This means our plans to begin transitioning to a hybrid learning model later this month are on hold and all students will continue with 100% digital learning until further notice.”

It is unclear how long this delay will last.

Superintendent Dr. William Hite released a letter to families that said families who chose the hybrid model will “maintain that selection when guidance and data show it is safe to move to hybrid learning.”

He added that teachers will continue to complete training geared toward eventually holding hybrid classes.

“We realize this is disappointing news for many students and families who want to resume in-person learning, but safety has been and will remain our highest priority,” Hite wrote.

In an email to members, union president Jordan called the decision a “big victory for this union. As we have said from the start, the health and safety of each and every one of you is critical.”

The district had planned to bring some pre-K-2 students back into buildings twice a week beginning on Nov. 30. It also gave students in those grades the option of remaining all virtual. Less than a third of eligible students opted into the in-person instruction.

As cases rose, the city’s teachers union came out against the plan.

Staff were initially asked to report to their school buildings on Nov. 9. That date was pushed back to Nov. 16.

Now there is no set date for staff or students to return.

Coronavirus cases have been climbing in Philadelphia since early October.

The district and public health officials said it was safe to bring back the youngest students because evidence suggests they’re least likely to spread the virus and most in need of face-to-face instruction. It’s a position some epidemiologists and countries continue to endorse, even as case-counts rise.

But with Philadelphia seeing a viral surge — and the district facing stiff opposition from its staff — it appears district administrators have reversed course. Staff in Philadelphia schools have long said that they worry about their safety and the district’s ability to properly maintain buildings during a generational health crisis.

City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said he was “in close communication” with school district officials about their decision to delay in-person classes. He noted, however, that the delay was not his call.

“Clearly case rates continue to rise,” Farley said on a day when Philadelphia recorded its largest single-day increase in coronavirus case counts. “This is a difficult decision, but as a very large school district with a lot of children to deal with and a lot of issues to deal with, we think it’s not an unreasonable one.”

Between parochial, charter, and independent schools, there are about 95 schools offering some form of in-person instruction right now. The health department says that in three of those schools, there’s been evidence of viral transmission among students and staff.

At the moment, Farley is not recommending that schools need to stop offering in-person classes.

“That may change as the case rates continue to rise, but at the moment we’re not making that recommendation,” Farley said.

This is the second time the school district had planned to reopen schools in some capacity and then reversed course.

Over the summer — while case rates in Philadelphia were far lower — the district proposed a hybrid schooling option for all children in the district. It abandoned the plan after resistance from principals, teachers, and parents.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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