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Youngest Philly students could return to buildings after Thanksgiving, sources say

Philadelphia School District headquarters

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

The School District of Philadelphia plans to offer face-to-face classes for students in pre-K through second grade starting on Nov. 30, sources told WHYY on Tuesday.

The first phase of the reopening plan is not set in stone, sources said, and could change if COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the city.

But right now, the plan is to offer a hybrid option for students in the lower grades after the Thanksgiving break. This hybrid option would allow students to attend classes in-person twice a week. Families would not, however, be compelled to send their students to school. A virtual option will remain, sources said.

If the first phase of the reopening plan goes well, the district would welcome back students with complex special needs on Jan. 9, according to sources familiar with the district’s plans.

Those details were later confirmed in a letter Superintendent William Hite sent to staff.

Hite’s letter also noted that ninth-grade students and students attending career and technical programs could return to buildings “later in January.”

“In-person learning opportunities will better meet the increasing needs of our students and families — and it’s the right thing to do,” Hite said in the letter, obtained by WHYY. “But resuming in-person learning safely will challenge all of us in new ways.”

The superintendent did not say in his letter to staff when the bulk of students in grades 3-8 and 10-12 might have the option of in-person classes.

District officials did not comment for this story, but a spokesperson said the district has a press conference planned for Wednesday morning. District leaders have repeatedly said that they will formally unveil their reopening plan some time this week.

In Hite’s letter to staff, he said the district had spent $6 million on technology that will allow teachers to livestream their in-person classes so that they can “teach their in-person and digital students at the same time.”

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

Around the region, most public school districts decided to go 100% online, but as October begins, some of those districts have started to welcome students back in waves.

Now, it seems the area’s largest school district — Philadelphia — would like to follow suit.

The district’s plan prioritizes younger learners, an approach that mirrors what other districts have done.

Preliminary studies suggest younger children are significantly less likely to fall ill from COVID-19 and also less likely to spread the virus. Early evidence from states that did open schools this fall indicates that the virus does not tend to spread within school buildings.

The World Health Organization says there have been few documented outbreaks within schools, suggesting that the “spread of COVID-19 within educational settings may be limited.” The WHO cautions, however, that scientists aren’t yet sure about the role of children in COVID-19 transmission.

The School District’s announcement comes at a time when COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania are rising.

Within Philadelphia, however, the percentage of positive coronavirus tests has largely remained below 5% since mid-July.

There’s also labor unrest hanging over the district’s reopening attempts. The contract for the city’s teachers union expired at the end of August, and the two sides haven’t agreed to a new deal.

The head of the teachers union has accused district leaders of trying to withhold staff raises until the union commits to a reopening plan. And there is widespread skepticism among staff that the district can properly ventilate buildings to counteract the spread of COVID-19, skepticism fueled by the district’s inability to mitigate other environmental hazards like asbestos.

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