The School District of Philadelphia could begin phasing students back into in-person classes beginning Nov. 30, with the youngest pupils starting first, under a new return to school plan unveiled Wednesday.
The plan, which would be a hybrid blend of in-person and remote classes, would see children from kindergarten to second grade return to campuses first, followed in January by “students with complex needs” in third to 12th grade and then later in January by students in ninth grade and those taking career and technical education classes.
The district currently has some 2,800 preschoolers and a little over 30,000 students in kindergarten through second grade, said Malika Savoy-Brooks, the district's chief of academic support.
“In-person learning opportunities will better meet the increasing needs of our students, especially our youngest learners and those with complex needs — and it’s the right thing to do. But resuming in-person learning safely will challenge all of us in new ways,” Superintendent William Hite said in a letter to parents and staff.
The option for hybrid learning and for starting off with younger students comes about because those students have higher "social and emotional" needs, Hite said. The current 100% digital learning model has also disproportionately affected low-income families and those in minority communities, many of whom cannot work from home and pay for someone to watch their children while they're gone, he added.
Under the plan, parents and guardians would have the choice to continue 100% remote classes for their children. Those who don't make a choice themselves would be automatically enrolled in 100% digital classes.
Those choosing the hybrid option, however, would be split into two cohorts and attend in-person school only two days a week, either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be a remote learning day for all students.
Families would have to choose an option between Oct. 26 and Oct. 30.
The plan calls for daily self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms, as well as mask wearing and other “health and safety protocols,” Hite said. The superintendent in recent weeks has floated the possibility of “random” testing, as well, but there were no specifics on what that would look like or if it would even be logistically feasible.
Because of the nature of the pandemic, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health may at any time require certain classrooms, schools or the entire district to shut down in order to minimize the spread of the virus, Hite said.
“The big unknown here is what will the conditions be? What does the data support? What are the health guidance and the health and safety rules that will apply which will determine whether or not we’re able to bring more children back, more young people back into a hybrid model or not?” he said.
While Hite has signaled that students would be able to stay with the teachers they’ve had during the current remote learning experience, he acknowledged in the letter that that may not be possible for everyone under the new proposed plan.
The superintendent said the district has invested $6 million in technology that would allow teachers to live stream their lessons from the classroom but, in instances where a teacher may not be able to teach from the classroom, a different teacher from the district may be assigned to a student.
Thus far a little more than 300 teachers have submitted requests to continue working remotely, said district Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh.
Chief of Schools Evelyn Nuñez said that if there is a deluge of teachers who can't teach in person, then hybrid learning may no longer be feasible. Similarly, the model may not be feasible if the vast majority of families at any given school choose the 100% digital option, she added.
The plan comes months after the district shut down school as the coronavirus spread throughout Philadelphia and the rest of the region and country. It also follows a failed attempt to get students back in classrooms by the beginning of the fall semester.
The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, earlier said that the long-term educational implications of keeping students online outweighed the risk of infection. Nonetheless, many parents and district staff, citing safety concerns, vociferously opposed a plan in July that would have seen students return to class by September.
That plan was torpedoed and students have been learning online ever since.
Hite has also highlighted work done on schools, including upgrading HVAC systems to allow for better air circulation and asbestos remediation efforts that were scheduled before the pandemic, in an effort to demonstrate the district has been proactive in preparing for a return to in-person schooling.
The new plan considered the feedback given at the time of the failed plan, and involved input from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, as well as the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, which represents school administrators, Savoy-Brooks said.
The district's board of education must still approve the plan.