As Philly school officials ring in mostly ‘normal’ school year, some things are still uncertain

'Ringing the bell' at Citizens Bank Park on August 24, 2022, to get ready for the new school year. (Philadelphia School District)

'Ringing the bell' at Citizens Bank Park on August 24, 2022, to get ready for the new school year. (Philadelphia School District)

The Phillies’ slogan “ring the bell” had a different meaning Wednesday, when the School District of Philadelphia made its final back-to-school stop at Citizens Bank Park.

“You kids know what the bell means,” said Phillies ambassador Scott Palmer. “I hope you’ve all had a great summer vacation, but it’s time to go back to school.”

Classes start Monday for 115,000 students across the district’s 216 public schools. Students and staff will be required to wear masks for at least the first 10 days of school, making the district an outlier in the region where most K-12 schools are mask optional.

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District leaders visit the stadium each year to ring in the start of classes with the help of board members, city officials, students, and the Phillies’ furry green friend Phanatic.

District superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr., who succeeded William Hite in June, said Wednesday was his first visit to the stadium. Originally from North Carolina, Watlington promised he’s already a Phillies fan.

“I’m celebrating the first day of school like everyone else,” he said. “I can honestly say that I am absolutely thrilled to see this collective coming together as we begin the new school year.”

The district just wrapped up a 10-stop bus tour, during which it distributed nearly 17,000 backpacks to 10,000 families.

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Watlington was joined by Mayor Jim Kenney and board of education member Sarah-Ashley Andrews among others.

Kenney said he’s looking forward to “what feels like the most ‘normal’ year we’ve had recently.”

In his remarks, Kenney highlighted the city’s decision to dedicate an additional $14 million in funding to the city’s public school system this year, bringing its contribution to $270 million.

Kenney said he’s excited for the return of the city’s Out-of-School Time program, which provides after-school programming, including tutoring, sports, and creative arts to students in all grades.

He said the city will also continue its PHLConnectED program, which connects eligible households with PreK- through high school-age children with access to free internet.

The district is mostly staffed in terms of teachers and counselors at 97.4%, though in a district as big as Philadelphia, that still translates to more than 200 openings.

“We won’t reach 100% by the first day of school, but we’re making provisions so that students receive teachers and are appropriately welcomed, cared for and taught at school.”

Provisions include a combination of “well-trained” substitutes and shuffling around existing credentialed staff to cover classrooms, Watlington said.

The district’s larger staffing concern continues to be school-support staff, including bus drivers, custodians, building engineers, and cafeteria workers. Bus drivers and building engineers have the lowest staffing rates, at 70% and 71% respectively.

A smooth start to the school year could also be derailed by a possible staff strike.

The district’s maintenance, custodial, and transportation employees voted Saturday to authorize a strike, citing stalled contract negotiations with the district.

The current contract expires on Aug. 31, so the earliest they can strike is Sept. 1, Watlington said in a written statement.

Watlington, a former custodian and bus driver, said Wednesday he’s “very optimistic” the situation will be resolved before the start of the school year.

“We’re gonna stay at it until we get it done,” he said.

Another back-to-school uncertainty comes in the form of two district charter schools caught in limbo as they appeal the school board’s decision to not renew their charter agreements.

The district and board reached out to the parents of students attending Daroff and Bluford charter schools last Friday to encourage them to consider enrolling their children in another district school.

“The School District wants to assure you that we are ready to welcome your child into a caring, stable and inclusive school environment that will support their education needs,” district officials wrote in a letter to families.

Both schools were formerly run by Universal Companies, which still runs five of the district’s charter schools. The schools enrolled about 1,100 students at Bluford and Daroff during the last school year.

Peng Chao, who heads the district’s charter schools office, told board members last week that he had serious concerns about the health and safety of students, staff, and families at Bluford and Daroff.

“To date, there are a significant number of staffing vacancies and facilities concerns across both schools that impact the charter schools’ ability to provide critical support and services to students and families,” the board wrote in its letter to families.

When asked Wednesday whether a significant number of students enrolled at Bluford and Daroff had transferred to other schools, Watlington declined to answer.

“We’re still in conversations and communications with students and families who may return to the school district,” he said. “It’s premature to say more than that at this time, but we’re going to welcome any and all of the students that want to come to the school district – the traditional public schools – with open arms.”

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