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Philly pre-K-2 families have until Oct. 30 to opt for in-person school; no return plan for most others

School District of Philadelphia headquarters

School District of Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The School District of Philadelphia plans to allow children enrolled in pre-K through second grade — about 32,000 students — to return to the classroom two days a week starting Nov. 30, though some schools may not offer face-to-face learning if enough parents or teachers opt out.

Students enrolled in ninth grade, those with complex needs, and those enrolled in career and technical education programs are scheduled to resume some in-classroom time by early February.

Currently, the district does not have a time frame for resuming face-to-face instruction for students in grades 3-10, and 11-12. Ninth graders are being targeted for return in hopes of preventing a spike in high school dropouts.

At a press conference Wednesday, Superintendent William Hite said getting more students back into the classroom depends on the course of the pandemic: coronavirus cases have been on the rise in the state in recent weeks.

“It could be feasible that we are able to return everyone to some form of in-person learning,” Hite said. “But it is also equally feasible that we may not be able to.”

Families of young students will have until Oct. 30 to decide whether they want to enroll in the hybrid option or keep their student learning entirely online.

Teachers can apply to continue working remotely if they want, but they must show a valid health concern. So far, 300 of the district’s 9,000 district teachers have applied to opt out of in-person instruction, officials said.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which has been involved in developing the “academic components” of the plan, said Wednesday it supports the decision to reopen in phases, but demanded more stringent safety measures before returning to the classroom.

“We have yet to see any evidence that schools will be ready to open in any capacity on the proposed dates,” PFT President Jerry Jordan said in a statement. “Virtual learning is far from ideal for any learner or educator. But lives are at stake.”

The union singled out problems with ventilation that hamper the circulation of fresh air within classrooms as a potential barrier to returning to face-to-face learning. It’s an issue that concerns Dan DiMartino, a kindergarten teacher at Shawmont School in Roxborough who would like to return to his classroom.

“There are certain things they learn in kindergarten you can’t teach on a computer. You can’t teach them how to turn the pages on a math book, you can’t teach them how to walk in line,” DiMartino said. “I want to go back, but I only want to go back if it’s safe.”

Hite said Wednesday the district would have more information on its progress in evaluating and improving ventilation by next week.

The academic part of the proposal hinges on a $6 million technology upgrade that will allow district teachers to livestream their in-person classes so that they can simultaneously reach in-person and digital students.

The return plan needs approval from the Philadelphia Board of Education, which next meets on Thursday, Oct. 22.

Over the summer, city and district leaders backed a plan that called for a hybrid learning option for all 120,000 students. That plan met stiff resistance from staff and families who testified before the board, forcing the district to say it would go all-virtual through at least Nov. 17 while it reevaluated.

Parents across the city reacted to the news with excitement, disappointment and confusion.

Christina Jackson is happy that her two second graders, both enrolled at Henry C. Lea Elementary in West Philadelphia, could soon be face-to-face with their classmates and teachers again.

But the 35-year-old sociology professor is worried what the hybrid model will mean for her schedule. Currently, she splits child care duties with a number of other parents in a pod model. If those kids are assigned different classroom times, the pod may have to split up.

“The fact that I can’t plan that right now is super anxiety-inducing to me,” Jackson said.

At first blush, Marlese Tate was thrilled to learn from news reports Tuesday that students would be returning to class. Her daughter has been struggling to learn online, she said, and the internet connection at Tate’s mother’s house, where her daughter studies, is often unreliable.

When a WHYY reporter informed the 40-year-old housekeeper that her daughter, who is in sixth grade, is not currently scheduled to return to the classroom, she was deflated.

“They’re going to drive me to drink,” said Tate, who says she will attend the next board meeting. “I am not feeling this. You are leaving the rest of the kids in limbo.”

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