Philly educators call for temporary return to virtual school

In the middle of an increase in COVID-19 caseseight schools in the Philadelphia school district have temporarily closed due to positive cases.

The closures come amid outcry over the recent death of an unvaccinated student at Olney Charter High School and data showing only about 21% of eligible children in Philadelphia have received the vaccine. Some educators are pushing for classes to be held remotely ahead of the holidays, which start on December 24, and for stricter health and safety measures for schools.

Prior to the recent closings, the district had only temporarily closed five schools this school year, district spokeswoman Monica Lewis said. She told Chalkbeat that the district has no immediate plans to go virtual amid this recent spike in COVID. “We remain confident in our efforts to keep positive test rates relatively low given the size of our student population,” she said.

Five schools, which cater to young learners, have closed for 10 days, including Ethan Allen, Abram Jenks, John Welsh, Pennypacker and Sullivan. Allen’s 10-day period ends on December 24, while Jenks, Welsh and Pennypacker’s end on December 27. And Sullivan’s term ends Jan. 4, a day after district staff are scheduled to return. (Schools will reopen after the planned winter break.)

Three other schools — Kenderton Elementary School, Waring Middle School and Penn Treaty High School — were also closed for 10-day periods, according to the health department. They will reopen on January 4.

Another school, Randolph Technical High School in Nicetown, closed for a 48-hour investigation due to positive cases of COVID-19. The closure affected all grades and levels, even though her ninth grader was already in quarantine until January 4. The 48-hour shutdown ended Dec. 21, according to the school district.

“We are very aware and encourage people to be aware of taking care of themselves and their loved ones, wearing your masks and getting tested,” Lewis said, adding that the district encourages those who are eligible to get tested. get vaccinated for “an extra layer of protection.” ”

The neighborhood too has six schools where COVID testing is offered to families, she said.

To date, 2,260 students and staff in the district have contracted the virus this school year, including 258 since Dec. 5, according to the district. COVID Dashboard. The district has over 120,000 students and approximately 20,000 staff.

Under district direction, entire schools are closed only if 3% of the school population tests positive for the virus. That’s less stringent than previous guidelines, which closed buildings when there were six COVID cases, regardless of the size of the student population.

The city’s health department released numbers Dec. 20 showing a spike in COVID cases. Philadelphia has averaged 641 new COVID-19 cases a day for the past two weeks, up from about 254 a day around the Thanksgiving holiday.

The spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus has some Philadelphia educators wondering if students should continue to learn in person before the holidays, which begin Dec. 24 and end Jan. 4.

Robin Cooper, president of Local 502/CASA, the principals’ union, told Chalkbeat that all schools should be virtual for the rest of the week.

“We polled members, and about 80% are for virtual,” she said, adding that the omicron variant and the lack of cleaning in some schools had raised concerns.

“It’s just a mess,” she said.

Although he disagreed with the prospect of schools becoming remote, Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, raised concerns about contact tracing of positive cases in schools.

“Teachers are very worried and contact tracing seems to be taking longer. And as a result of that, it causes tremendous anxiety among members of our schools,” he said. “The nurses are so overwhelmed that they can’t do contact tracing.”

Some districts across the country adjust winter break or consider distance learning in January amid the omicron wave. But James Garrow, director of communications for the Philadelphia Department of Health, said in an email that the city wants to keep schools open. “In-person education benefits students in so many ways, we are committed to keeping students in school.”

He also said there were no imminent plans to change school health protocols. “We believe that, as long as everyone follows the advice to vaccinate and boost everyone, to wear a mask whenever they are not eating or drinking and to stay home if they feel the mildly sick, we can help reduce the cases,” he said.

Olney teachers called for unemployment Dec. 20, which made the school virtual, following the death last week of senior Alayna Thach from COVID. Educators at the charter school have protested what they say are inadequate health and safety protocols. The charter high school is operated by ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania, which operates primarily in North Philadelphia communities including Hunting Park, Olney and Kensington.

The school offered vaccination clinics and Thach’s family said they planned to get vaccinated in January.

Perry A. Thomasson