What to Know
- The Archdiocese of Philadelphia's plan to return to school includes social distancing and enhanced cleaning measures
- Masks will be required, but not necessarily at all times
- The fall semester is set to begin in September
In a departure from the city’s public schools, Catholic schools in Philadelphia and some surrounding suburbs plan to offer in-person classes in the fall, with many students filling classrooms five days a week.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s coronavirus reopening guidelines call for students in kindergarten through 8th grade to have in-person classes five days a week, while high school students are to follow a hybrid model that includes a mix of in-person and online learning.
All students will be placed in cohorts, from which they should not deviate, with classrooms holding no more than 25 students, depending on the classroom’s size.
“The plans that were ultimately developed have a strong structural framework that seeks to provide the maximum educational experience for students,” archdiocesan officials said in a news release.
Masks will be required, but not at all times, a key difference from the original plan proposed by the School District of Philadelphia, which, under guidance from the city’s health department, required masks or face shields at all times except for students with medical conditions that prevented mask-wearing.
Instead, teachers will be encouraged to wear face shields to allow students to see their faces, while kids will be allowed to take off masks when they are in a “socially distance situation” within their cohort.
“Using these principles, a student then can remain mask free for the majority of the day, unless a parent indicates they would like their child to keep their mask on the entire day,” the archdiocese’s guidelines state.
Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesman James Garrow said the department was reviewing the archdiocese's plan and would not immediately comment on it.
Desks will be spaced 3 to 6 feet apart from the center of one desk to another, and all will have sneeze guards. Classrooms will have no-touch thermometers, hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and gloves.
The plan also calls for “frequent” cleaning of high-touch surfaces.
Sharon Ruprecht, who has children at Montgomery County's Holy Rosary Regional Catholic School, said she was "thrilled" about her schools' return plan.
"I don't think we would be going back if there was a real, known risk to these kids. So, I – as long as the precautions are in place and they're being followed – I think I'm comfortable sending my kids back," Ruprecht said.
Andrew Lowry, principal of the Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Philadelphia's Andorra Terrace neighborhood, acknowledged that teachers are "afraid," but said that they are "cautiously optimistic" about the fall term.
“We need to do something to get the kids back in the building and we feel that this is the best way possible, and our parents are supporting us and we feel like we should at least try to have the traditional schooling take place," he said.
Rita Schwartz, president of the Association of Catholic Teachers Local 1776, which represents high school teachers, agreed that there is a need for students to return to school – especially given the possibility of some parents enrolling kids in other schools if they are not allowed to return to in-person classes – but called the archdiocese's plan "general."
She said her union is not yet endorsing the guidelines and is instead waiting to see the plans offered by individual schools, with the hope that their plans are acceptable.
“Everybody’s worked very hard to make a return to school possible, and I just hope and pray that everybody stays safe and that the education that we give, which is a great education, goes on without any problem," Schwartz said.
In the meantime, though, Schwartz said some teachers have been expressing anxiety.
“They’re concerned, and I think rightly so, because they need to be assured that the kids are gonna be wearing masks, that the teachers are gonna be wearing masks, that there will be social distancing – they need to be assured of all of this," she said.
As part of the archdiocese's guidelines, students are asked to remain with their cohort or wear a mask if they join students from another cohort during recess. Lunches are to be eaten within a student’s own cohort, preferably inside the classroom.
High school students, meanwhile, will still get face-to-face time with their teachers, even while at home. The split model calls for classrooms of no more than 17 students, with groups rotating in and out on alternate days.
Teachers will use the Schoology learning managing system, with a camera trained on them for students to follow along when they’re home.
For all grades, students, parents and teachers are asked to monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, dry cough and breathing difficulties.
Archdiocesan schools are set to begin the fall semester in September. The archdiocese has schools in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware and Bucks counties.
NBC10's Deanna Durante contributed to this story.