Public schools finally reopening

Some kindergarten through second-grade students are expected to return to class on Monday at J. Hampton Moore and several other elementary schools in the Northeast.

City, School District of Philadelphia and teachers’ union officials announced Monday that pre-kindergarten through second-grade students will begin returning to school buildings for in-person learning on a rolling schedule beginning Monday, March 8.

The agreement followed a mediation process led by a city-appointed neutral third-party, the school district and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The first 53 schools have been approved to resume in-person instruction using the district’s hybrid model for students who chose hybrid learning during the selection process last fall. Teachers at those 53 schools will report to work on Wednesday, March 3.

The list of 53 schools includes the following located in the Northeast: Abraham Lincoln, Ethan Allen, Henry W. Lawton, J. Hampton Moore, John Marshall, Joseph Greenberg, Mayfair, Stephen Decatur and William H. Loesche.

A cohort of new schools will come back each week until all pre-K to second-grade classes have returned. The goal is to have the return dates for all pre-K to second-grade hybrid learning students announced by March 22.

Public schools have been closed to in-person instruction since March 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have been open since September for in-person instruction.

To prepare for in-person learning, public school parents and families are encouraged to visit philasd.org/aes to learn more about the layers of safety the district has in place.

“We are excited to offer the in-person learning opportunities that so many of our families want and need. Despite the heroic work of our educators, many of our students have struggled academically and others are suffering feelings of isolation after having to sit before a computer screen for nearly a year,” said William R. Hite Jr., superintendent of the school district. “We all know that this is not the most effective way for our children to learn. This is why we have had a strong sense of urgency around and commitment to safely reopening our schools, just as many other schools and school districts have already done locally and nationally.”

The school district has put in place the following layers of safety:

• mandatory mask wearing or other facial covering, which will be provided to students and staff;

• rapid testing for students and staff;

• new classroom setups and signage for social distancing;

• touchless hand sanitizer stations;

• Plexiglas partitions;

• maximum occupancy signs;

• enhanced cleaning protocols;

• and a COVID-19  testing program in place for students and staff.

William Hite, superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia

“The union triggered the intervention of the neutral third party, as negotiated by the PFT and district, and we were able to utilize the mediation process to secure and assure a safe plan to reopen school buildings,” said Jerry T. Jordan, PFT president. “Today, we are able to confidently say that 53 schools are safe for reoccupancy based on a detailed analysis made possible by the mediation process. I applaud all parties for their commitment to ensuring the safety of our educators and the young people they serve. Nothing could be more important.”

The school district and PFT will continue to work through the agreed-upon review process to approve all remaining schools for in-person learning to welcome back hybrid learning students in grades 3-12 in the coming weeks.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten attended the news conference. The AFT’s Pennsylvania president, Arthur Steinberg, was also in attendance.

Steinberg claimed that the fight for safe school buildings is rooted in “systemic racism,” adding that the conditions in Philadelphia public schools would never be tolerated in a wealthier, whiter school district.

“Today’s announcement is significant because it will be the first time in nearly a year that students, albeit a small group, are able to return to in-person learning,” he said.

Steinberg said the district’s proposal for window fans to improve circulation was a “nonstarter.” An alternative solution involves scientifically approved air purifiers.

Thousands of PFT members have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and thousands more are scheduled. Steinberg thanked Mayor Jim Kenney, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the district for the partnership.

Meanwhile, City Councilwoman Helen Gym (D-at large) issued a statement that read, in part, “It’s important to remember that even with this announcement more than 90 percent of Philadelphia school children and educators will continue to learn remotely. Our focus must be on a full school re-opening and using the federal relief dollars to prioritize continued modernization and repair of school buildings, investing in support staff particularly around trauma and mental health, and improving virtual learning. Our ultimate goal must be bringing our young people, school staff and communities back to schools that are safer, healthier and more equipped to support our young people than they were before.” ••