By Chanel Hill
PHILADELPHIA — School District of Philadelphia superintendent William Hite held his first in-person weekly press conference in almost a year Thursday due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
During the presser, which was held at Nebinger Elementary School in South Philadelphia, Hite reiterated that schools are safe for children to return to in-person learning.
“I can confidently say that our schools are ready to open with the proper safety protocols in place,” Hite said.
District administrators have plans to transition to a hybrid learning model — a mix of in-person learning and remote learning — starting Feb. 22 for pre-k to second grade students.
Students opting into hybrid learning will attend school in person two days per week on their assigned days only — and engage in digital learning the remaining three days.
Families will also have the chance to opt in at a later date once it’s safe to phase more students into the school buildings.
Families who opted into hybrid learning can choose to return to 100 percent digital learning at any time. However, once they return to 100 percent virtual learning, many factors will determine when and if they can opt back into hybrid learning.
Hite stated that younger students need academic and social support that only in-person learning provides.
He told a story about a 6-year-old who was learning under the cash register at her mother’s work because the family could not find affordable childcare.
“That’s not the type of educational environment we want our young people exposed to,” Hite said. “We think the best and safest place for them would be in schools.”
Mediation sessions with teacher union
The District has been in a standoff with the Philadelphia Federations of Teachers, who has had concerns over COVID-19 related safety concerns.
The concerns ultimately led the union to direct teachers not to report to school buildings on Feb. 8, the scheduled date for teachers to start preparing and training prior to students being back in the buildings for in-person learning.
A mediator led its first session with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the school district on Wednesday. Hite said a state mediator has also gotten involved.
Both sides began exchanging documents last week, but there is no current timetable for when the mediator will rule.
Hite said that it was possible that the Feb. 22 return for 9,000 pre-k to second grade students could get pushed back, based on when the mediator’s decision comes in and whether the mediator orders more work done to buildings.
“I cannot discuss any details of the mediation process that’s currently occurring,” Hite said.
“I do want to express my strong desire to come to a resolution as quickly as possible so that we can move forward together and teachers and staff can do the important work of completing the training and preparing their classrooms so we can welcome back our pre-k to second grade students.”
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is partnering with the city Department of Public Health to launch a COVID-19 school vaccination program.
The program aims to vaccinate teachers, principals and staff at all district, charter, independent and parochial schools, as well as at child care centers and pre-K providers.
The vaccination effort is expected to begin by the end of February and expand to more locations, including pop-up clinics in school buildings throughout the city.
Hite said that the return to schools is not contingent on the vaccine.
“How quickly the vaccination is available to the employees depends on the quantity and time of the vaccine,” Hite said.
“While vaccines are not mandatory for school district staff, we hope that as many staff as possible get vaccinated as another layer of safety for themselves, their families, colleagues and students.”
To date, the District has spent about $65 million due to COVID-19 including $4 million in ventilation assessments, repairs and enhancements to ensure healthy air flow, in accordance with the guidelines from the EPA.
Administrators have ordered 3,000 window fans. The fans are manufactured to generate at least 270 cubic feet of fresh air per minute.
District administrators also had specialists certify that the air flow brings in enough fresh air to safely allow 18 people per room before applying the social distancing requirement.
“We want to maintain a classroom temperature of 68 degrees or above,” Hite said. “Once in-person begins, building engineers will do safety checks in classrooms two to three times per day to ensure the fans are operating properly and the room temperature is appropriate.
“If there are any concerns about what the temperature is, the principal of the building and the building engineer will work together to relocate the class until the issue can be resolved.”
Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.