Philly schools announce plans for students return in February

(Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Chanel Hill

PHILADELPHIA — School District of Philadelphia administrators announced Wednesday 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.

Staff supporting pre-k to second grade students will return to school buildings Feb. 8 to prepare for students later that month. It will be the first time District students will have in-person learning since last March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We know that while some students can thrive in a digital learning environment, many do not,” said School District of Philadelphia superintendent William Hite. “Some of our most vulnerable students, including younger learners, are at risk of falling behind.

“Escalating violence and feelings of isolation are all tragic consequences of the pandemic, further threatening the health and well-being of our young people,” he added. “Resuming in-person learning opportunities is a crucial step to help restore a much-needed sense of familiarity, community and connectedness for students and families.”

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. Most schools will follow a staggered “AA/BB schedule” to limit the number of students in school buildings at one time and maintain social distancing throughout the day.

Cayuga Elementary School principal Jason Carrion said that while his school has managed to get by with virtual learning, that personal connection with students has been challenging.

“That personal connection is what’s been challenging to replicate behind a computer,” Carrion said. “I’ve also spoken to families who have also been frustrated because we have parents who have to go to work and they now have to pay someone to babysit their children.

“We know that we’re not out of the woods with this virus, but to have the opportunity to safely return to in person learning and for students to be face-to-face with teachers and staff who love them will be extremely helpful to them,” he added. “The promise of re-establishing that personal connection has us all excited.”

Last fall, more than 9,000 pre-k to second grade families opted for the hybrid model when asked by District administrators how they wanted their child to transition back into school buildings.

Families who selected hybrid learning during the selection process in the fall will phase in first, but families who chose to remain 100 percent digital during the selection process in the fall must remain digital at this time. 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.

Board of Education president Joyce S. Wilkerson expressed confidence in the District’s plan and looks forward to a return to in-person learning for students.

“The Board of Education believes that schools provide safe, supportive learning environments that are essential for our students to thrive academically, socially and emotionally,” Wilkerson said in a statement. “It is time to begin the safe return of students and staff to their school buildings.”

Safety measures

All district employees, students, and guardians will be required to perform a daily health screen to assess COVID-19 symptoms. Everyone must wear a mask or face covering while in school.

Classrooms and bathrooms will be set up to ensure social distancing and plexiglass barriers will be installed in offices.

All district buildings will have enhanced cleaning protocols with EPA-approved cleaning supplies, touchless hand sanitizer, and touchless hydration station with the manual water fountain turned off so water access is hands free.

There will be maximum occupancy signs outside each room and signage to promote social distancing and other safety measures throughout the schools.

District mechanics will continue to make repairs to ventilation systems as needed to provide air flow in areas that did not meet ventilation standards.

For rooms where window fans have been installed to provide air flow, the fans will deliver enough outside air to support safe occupancy for up to 18 people.

Ventilation assessments by certified air balancers have been completed in all schools to assess air flow and help determine safe occupancy levels in each room.

Hite said in addition to safety protocols, the District has also worked on advance improvements to school buildings.

“We certified 28 more schools as lead safe, bringing the total number of lead safe schools to 100, addressed asbestos in in 183 schools through abatement, remediation, or repair projects, and removed 230,000 square feet or five acres and 77,000 linear feet or 14 miles of asbestos containing materials such as pipe, insulation, and floor towel from schools.

“We’ve completed major projects like new science and computer labs, bathroom renovations, large installations, and mechanical system upgrades at 11 schools, and we modernize some 147 early literacy classrooms and buildings,” he added.

While administrators are moving forward with plans for the hybrid model, the Health Department may require at any time that the District temporarily close a classroom, a school or all schools to help stem the spread of COVID-19. In these cases, students will immediately shift to digital learning from home until it is safe to resume their in-person schedules.

COVID-19 Vaccination

District administrators stated that once vaccines become more available for adults they will continue to slowly phase more students into the school buildings. While getting the vaccine won’t be mandatory for staff, Hite said he hopes as many people get vaccinated as possible.

“We will continue to advocate for District staff to have access to the vaccine as soon as possible,” Hite said. “At this time we don’t know exactly when and how many doses of the vaccines will be available to District staff given supply constraints.

“While taking the vaccine will not be mandatory for staff, we hope as many people as possible choose to get vaccinated when they are able to as an extra layer of safety for themselves and others around them.”

Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared