What to Know
- Philadelphia schools will transition back to a hybrid learning model of both in-person and digital learning starting next month, School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite announced on Wednesday.
- The School District will slowly phase in groups of students, beginning with pre-K through second grade.
- Last fall, families of pre-K through second grade students in the District had the chance to choose whether they wanted their child to transition to hybrid learning or remain 100 percent digital. More than 9,000 families chose the hybrid model.
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Philadelphia public schools will attempt to transition back to a hybrid learning model of both in-person and digital learning starting next month, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite announced on Wednesday.
“We know that while some students can thrive in a digital learning environment, many do not. Some of our most vulnerable students, including younger learners, are at risk of falling behind,” Hite said. “Escalating violence and feelings of isolation are all tragic consequences of the pandemic, further threatening the health and well-being of our young people.”
Schooling in a Pandemic
The School District plans to slowly phase in groups of students, beginning with pre-K through second grade.
“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,” Hite said.
Last fall, families of pre-K through second grade students in the district had the chance to choose whether they wanted their child to transition to hybrid learning or remain 100% digital. More than 9,000 families chose the hybrid model.
Pre-K through second grade students with families who selected hybrid learning will phase in first, starting on Monday, Feb. 22. Staff members supporting those students will return to school buildings on Feb. 8 to prepare.
Families of pre-K through second grade students who chose to remain 100% digital must remain digital at that time, though they will have the chance to opt into hybrid learning at a later date when more students can safely be phased in.
The students undergoing hybrid learning will attend school in person for two assigned days per week and have digital learning for the remaining three days.
Most schools will follow a staggered “AA/BB schedule” to limit the number of students in buildings at once and maintain social distancing, the District said.
The families who chose hybrid learning can still choose to return to 100% digital at any time. However, if they return to only virtual learning, many factors will determine when and if they can opt back into hybrid learning, the District said.
“Safety and family choice are our highest priorities as we slowly phase into in-person learning,” Hite said. “We have been preparing for this transition since Spring 2020, and take very seriously the responsibility of putting multiple, proven layers of safety in place to safeguard the health and well-being of our students and staff.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether the school district will be able to follow through with its hybrid learning plan. Since last year, the district has tried but failed in various attempts to reinstitute in-person learning in some form, due to pressure both from worried parents and teachers.
Shortly after the district's announcement, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers indicated it would not support the latest plan, either, despite agreeing with "the District’s desire to return to school buildings."
"We know that students learn best in person," the union said in part in a statement posted on Facebook. "But community spread is very high, ventilation standards as outlined in our MOU have not yet been met, and the PFT believes that educators should be vaccinated before being asked to go into buildings," the union noted, referencing a prior memorandum of understanding with the district, which outlined health and safety protocols that the union wanted met before sending teachers back to the classroom.
While saying that the benefits of in-person schooling outweigh the risks, Gail Carter-Hamilton, Pediatric Resource Manager at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, acknowledges that COVID-19 cases at schools are likely unavoidable.
"COVID will come to our schools. It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when," she said.
Nonetheless, she said measures like social distancing, mask wearing, hand-washing and keeping people at home if they feel sick will mitigate the risk of infection. She noted that since August of last year, only about 19 of roughly 200 charter or diocesan schools – which have been open since that time – have reported in-school spread of coronavirus.
Hite said district officials continue to advocate for teachers to get vaccinated, but there are thousands of people who are closer to the proverbial vaccination line. Waiting for all teachers to get vaccinated would jeopardize any possibility that in-person schooling would happen this year, Hite said.
Meanwhile, he added, teachers will have the option to opt out of in-person learning, but they must meet district-set criteria if they are to continue working from home.
Philadelphia School District Safety Measures
- Pre-screening and many other health and safety protocols in place for students and adults
- Inventories of PPE for staff and students to support mandatory mask wearing and facial covering while in school
- New classroom and bathroom setups to ensure social distancing
- Plexiglass barriers installed in offices
- Enhanced cleaning protocols with EPA-approved cleaning supplies, and the addition of 75 new cleaner positions
- Touchless hand sanitizer stations throughout all buildings
- Touchless hydration stations with the manual water fountain turned off so water access is hands-free
- Maximum occupancy signs outside each room
- Signage to promote social distancing and other safety measures throughout the schools
The District also said they completed ventilation assessments by certified air balancers in all schools to assess the air flow and help determine safe occupancy levels in each room. Mechanics will continue to make repairs to ventilation systems as needed.
“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.”
The city’s Health Department may require the district to temporarily close a classroom, school or all schools at any time in order to help stop the spread of COVID-19. If that ever occurs, students will immediately shift back to digital learning from home until it’s safe to return to in-person learning.
“Our school leaders have planned ahead for these circumstances and are ready to support smooth transitions between hybrid and digital learning models when needed,” Hite said. “We must all be prepared for and expect these changing realities, and be flexible and patient with one another as we navigate them together.”