Teachers, health care workers push back against Philadelphia in-person school

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Pennsylvania state officials released updated guidance to safely reopen schools on Thursday. Some of the recommendations include requiring parents to do daily symptom screenings and limiting student interactions by staggering class times.

But a day after the Philadelphia School District released its reopening plan, some teachers and public healthcare workers are speaking out and cautioning about re-opening in person.

"They say we're going to supply you with cleaning supplies, we're going to give you this, we're going to give you that, when in reality, we're in poorly ventilated buildings, we're in buildings that already need capital construction," said Ivey Welshans, Special Education Liaison at Mya Middle School. "You know, we're dealing with asbestos, we're dealing with other health concerns and now you throw in COVID-19 and now they're going to give us all the resources?"

Philadelphia School officials said a key to their reopening plan is the ability to quickly shift between online learning, in-person and a combination of the two - not if, but when positive COVID-19 cases affect schools.

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The School District of Philadelphia has announced that students will not be in the classroom full-time when the new school year begins.



The plan outlines safety precautions like requiring staff and students to wear masks, capping classrooms to 25 students and disinfecting high touch surfaces every four hours to keep everyone safe. Some teachers say the plan is not feasible.

"To do this to the young students in our city and teachers, it's really like we're lab rats or guinea pigs in a larger experiment to see, like, what happens," said Sharahn Santana, 12th grade English teacher at Parkway Northwest High School.

Director of Innovation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing Marion Leary RN, MSN/MPH, said the mask break that students will get each day poses a larger health risk.

"The meal break sounds potentially like a super spreader event to me," said Leary. "You have all these kids eating lunch in a classroom or in a cafeteria, yes they're socially distanced and assigned seats but are you expecting them not to be social? Not to talk to their friends? Are they sitting there in silence?"

A spokesperson with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers sent Action News this statement:

Once we have had a chance to review the District's plan thoroughly, and solicit our members' feedback in a variety of ways, we will be able to better assess whether their plan is comprehensive and whether it is doable. A cursory review raises a number of significant concerns. Our members want to be in school buildings doing the job they love if it is, and remains, safe to do so. Certainly, the recent uptick in cases nationwide, the local plateauing of cases, as well as the lack of federal funding, calls the feasibility and safety of an in-person return into question.

In September, the district is planning a split schedule, which includes two days in the classroom and three days of virtual learning.

During a press conference Wednesday, Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Dr. William Hite said the district will also be offering a fully virtual program for families that are not comfortable sending their children back to the classroom.

"There is still a need that children need to engage with adults and teachers and that is the reason why we didnt start with all virtual," said Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Dr. William Hite. "In order to maintain social distancing, we can only take a percentage or a portion of our populations in schools at one time. So that's why we could not do the five days completely."

The health and safety of students, teachers and staff must be paramount as schools prepare for the upcoming school year," said Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera. "The Department of Education has been focused on supporting schools with resources and best practices to help school leaders make informed decisions within their local contexts and in response to evolving conditions."

The best practice recommendations for schools outlined by the departments of Health and Education include:

  • Masks must be worn by students and staff at school and on the bus as required by theorder signed by Sec. of Health Dr. Levine on July 1, with some exceptions. Masks can be removed to eat or drink.
  • Students or caregivers should do a daily symptom screening before leaving for school.
  • Students, teachers and other staff are strongly encouraged to follow social distancing throughout the day with 6 feet of separation between desks and other seating.
  • If possible, hold classes in gyms, auditoriums, other large spaces or outdoors, where physical distancing can be maintained.
  • Student seating should be facing in the same direction.
  • Limit student interactions by staggering class times, creating one-way walking patterns in hallways, and, when feasible, keeping students in a classroom and rotating teachers instead.
  • For breakfast and lunch, consider serving individually packaged meals in classrooms and avoid across-the-table seating. If meals are served in a cafeteria, sit students at least 6 feet apart.
  • Limit the number of students on playgrounds at one time and encourage social distancing.
  • Encourage the use of virtual gatherings, events, and extracurricular activities.
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