Philly schools poised to offer full in-person learning this fall

William Hite speaks from a podium, surrounded by city officials

Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite announces plans to return to full in-person learning for the 2021/2022 school year. He is joined on the stage at Spring Garden School by Mayor Jim Kenney (left) and teachers union President Jerry Jordan (third from left). (Emma Lee/WHYY)

School District of Philadelphia and city leaders say they are optimistic about offering full-time, in-person learning in the 2021-22 school year.

During a press conference Wednesday morning, Superintendent William Hite said the plan is contingent on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxing its physical distancing guidance, which currently calls for three feet of space between students in schools. Hite expects that guidance to change in the coming weeks.

Wednesday’s statement is the clearest yet about plans for the upcoming school year in Pennsylvania’s largest school district.

“We’re standing up because we’re committing to a plan to get children back five days a week,” said Hite.

Hite said the district is still exploring a 100% digital option for the fall. Students would be enrolled in an all-virtual program, which means teachers working in person would not have online students.

Hite was flanked at the event by the leaders of all the school staff unions, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

Jerry Jordan, head of the PFT, endorsed the idea of students returning for five days of school a week.

“We believe that it’s really important for children to have in-person instruction,” said Jordan. “It really has been really challenging for teachers to teach in a hybrid model.”

Throughout this school year, the PFT had been a voice of restraint, often pushing back on district plans to further reopen schools. Now it seems the PFT — as well as unions representing food service workers, building engineers, and school administrators — are committed to the idea of a full-time, in-person option for students.

Philadelphia offered most students the chance to return on a part-time basis toward the end of the current school year. The vast majority opted to remain all virtual.

Students in second-grade and below started to return in early March as the district and its teachers’ union hammered out a safety plan. They were followed by older elementary school students, middle school students, and ninth graders.

Most students in grades 10-12, however, never stepped foot inside a physical classroom. A Philadelphia student entering 11th or 12th grade next year would not have attended in-person school for nearly 18 months by the time the fall semester begins.

Philadelphia prioritized vaccinations for school staff and partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to expedite the process. A little over half of staff working in Philadelphia schools got vaccinated through that program.

The Biden administration has urged schools to reopen for in-person lessons five days a week. And more recently, the American Federation of Teachers — with which the Philadelphia teachers union is affiliated — endorsed a return to full, in-person school for the fall.

Earlier this spring, the CDC updated its guidance to say that students can be spaced three feet apart in classrooms when fully masked. But the CDC is expected to revise its guidance for the 2021-22 school year.

Hite says that the district does not have enough space in all of its buildings to offer five days a week instruction if the CDC keeps the three-foot standard in place.

One of the major fault lines this fall could revolve around the availability of a virtual option.

New Jersey, for instance, has rescinded an order that allowed districts to offer K-12 online schooling. Philadelphia seems inclined to create a separate program for families that want their children to continue learning online. The district, it should be noted, already has an online school for high school students.

While COVID-19 vaccines are approved for children 12 and up, many middle and elementary school students are not eligible for shots. That said, COVID-19 is much less likely to severely sicken young children, data shows.

The district also announced Wednesday that it plans to circulate a survey starting today for families to say what “excites and concerns” them about the upcoming year.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal