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Masks, Face Shields and Hybrid Learning: Philly Schools Unveil Pandemic Reopening Plan

Parents and guardians will also be allowed to opt their children into a 100% online learning model

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Philadelphia’s schools will institute a hybrid learning model and require masks and social distancing when campuses reopen in the fall amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Instruction will be provided five days a week and will prioritize face-to-face learning when possible, especially for “students with complex needs” and younger pupils, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said.

“What we know is that COVID-19 conditions will continue to evolve and that the guidance we must follow from city, state, and federal health authorities will also evolve – sometimes very quickly,” Hite said.

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The district's plan calls for students to attend in-person classes twice a week, either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday. However, special education students and those with complex needs will be offered in-person classes Monday through Thursday. Fridays will be fully online for all students.

Teachers will be taking attendance, and assignments will be graded. Mayor Jim Kenney said the city will continue to try to ensure access to reliable internet service for students during digital instruction days.

The district will try to ensure that students within the same household are assigned the same schedule, Assistant Superintendent Evelyn Nuñez said. District officials will contact parents and guardians in August about schedules.

The district and the city are working in tandem to find alternative locations where children can go during days of online instruction if their parents are not home due to work, Hite said.

Mask wearing will be required on school buses. SEPTA will work with the district to ensure the safety of children who rely on public transit to get to school, Kenney said.

The plan for in-person learning calls for spacing desks six feet apart and for no more than 25 people to be together in a classroom whenever feasible. The sharing of supplies is discouraged.

Employees will be required to fill out a daily, online self-screening asserting that they do not have COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact with someone with the disease before entering campuses. Families will be required to conduct a similar daily screening, and will have to sign a health and safety agreement in which they promise to keep sick kids at home and to seek medical care when needed.

Students and teachers from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade will be provided with face shields to “facilitate interactions” for those younger students who rely in large part on facial and visual cues. Students will receive a maximum of two face shields and five masks per week, as needed.

Children between sixth and twelfth grade are required to wear masks and may either use their own or use one of the ones provided daily by their school. Teachers in these grades, however, will not receive daily masks.

Students and staff may wear surgical masks, cloth masks or gaiters, but coverings like bandanas, towels or scarves will not be allowed, said district medical advisor Dr. Barbara Klock.

Students with certain medical issues like neuromuscular conditions, tracheostomies, Autism and hearing impairment among others will be exempt from wearing masks.

The plan calls for schools to implement frequent cleaning protocols, including disinfecting high-touch surfaces at least every four hours.

Dining will also look different.

Children will be offered a grab-and-go breakfast when entering school, which they will be allowed to eat in their classroom. At lunch, students will either grab food at a station in the hallway or will keep a distance when waiting in line and then eat their meal at preassigned seats or in their classrooms.

Water fountains are also off limits. Students will be asked to bring their own water bottles and refill them at touchless hydration stations.

Parents and guardians will also be allowed to opt their children into a 100% online learning model.

Meanwhile, teachers will only be allowed to opt out of in-person instruction if they have a documented reason for why they or someone in their household is susceptible to COVID-19, Hite said.

The district is the 8th largest in the nation and the largest in Pennsylvania, serving more than 200,000 students from the City of Philadelphia.

Hite said that the plan was informed by health guidance from the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, as well as from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other state and federal agencies.

Thousands of parents, students and teachers weighed in to voice their concerns and preferences as the district formulated its guidance. 

Despite the precautions, Hite was forthright about the probability that there will likely be infections within schools.

"I must say that we are preparing for when, not if, positive COVID-19 cases impact one or more of our school communities," he said. He added that the district will work with the city's health department on how to react to positive cases, leaving open the possibility of shuttering individual schools or even the entire district.

Dr. Thomas Farley, Philadelphia's health commissioner, said the city is still working out specifics, but if there is an indication of a high amount of community spread of the virus, and if there is any sign that schools are contributing to the spread, then classes will revert to a fully online model.

Though President Donald Trump last week instructed the CDC to modify its recommendations on reopening schools by making the guidance less strict, the School District of Philadelphia’s plan had already been in the works for weeks before then.

Hite underscored that the district’s plan prioritizes safety, and the superintendent largely dismissed Trump’s threats to pull federal funding from schools that do not fully reopen, noting that federal dollars make up only about 10% of the district's budget and that funding is allocated by Congress, not the Trump administration.

“We’re gonna be guided by health and safety, and this is too critical of a decision for individuals to just be posturing around getting children, getting everybody back into school,” Hite said.

Kenney was more pointed about the threats.

“As Dr. Hite stated, now is not the time for threats from the U.S. Secretary of Education or the president to keep money from districts like ours," he said. "I've made it no secret the way this entire response, or lack thereof, to this pandemic has been handled by those folks in Washington."

Kenney labelled as "unacceptable" education secretary Betsy DeVos' desire to fully reopen schools without providing clear guidance on how to do so.

Pennsylvania reopening guidance, meanwhile, allows schools to implement a hybrid model or to fully return to online learning if health conditions worsen. 

Philadelphia schools' fall semester is scheduled to begin Sept. 2, but the plan must first be approved by the board of education. President Joyce Wilkerson said the board will take up the plan at its meeting next week.

Full implementation of the plan will cost northward of $60 million and could reach $80 million, Hite said.

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