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District, teachers union reach deal to reopen 53 Philly schools March 8

School District of Philadelphia administrators along with city and teachers’ union leaders announced plans Monday for pre-K through second-grade students to return to school buildings for in-person learning starting March 8.

“This has been a challenging year for all of us, but at this time I’m excited to have our young people back in the classroom,” said School Superintendent William Hite during a news conference at Richard Wright Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

“We can do it safely if we’re committed to doing this together, and together is how we got to this point.”

Fifty-three schools have already been approved to resume in-person learning using the district’s hybrid model — a mix of in-person and remote learning. Students who will be returning selected the hybrid learning model last fall.

Teachers and staff at those 53 schools will report to work this Wednesday. The following Tuesday will be the first time district students will have in-person learning since last March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“From there, a cohort of new schools will come back each week until all pre-K to second-grade students who opted into the hybrid model in the fall have returned,” Mayor Jim Kenney said.

Kenney said the goal is to return students to more schools each week and have all pre-K to second-grade schools approved by March 22.

“Each week the announcement of what schools will be opening will be made Monday, teachers will return to those buildings on Wednesday and students will return the following Monday,” Kenney said.

The announcement comes after a mediation process led by a city-appointed neutral third-party. The district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) agreed on a process that allows PFT to individually review plans for all schools and start bringing students and staff back for in-person learning.

“Our goal has always been to protect the safety of our staff and young people, and the plan announced Monday does just that,” said American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania president Arthur Steinberg.

“I wish that we can stand up here and announce that every single school building was safer, but we’re not quite there yet,” he added. “We are able to say with confidence that the 53 schools that have been announced are safe.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the announcement proves that “good things happen when people come together to solve problems.”

“Over the course of the last several weeks, people got together and problem-solved,” Weingarten said. “We worked together to ensure that our kids have a shot at their future in a way that keeps everybody safe.”

Councilmember Helen Gym said in a statement that while 53 schools will reopen, 90% of Philadelphia schoolchildren and educators will continue to learn and teach remotely.

“Our focus must be on a full school reopening and using the federal relief dollars to prioritize continued modernization and repair of school buildings, investing in support staff, particularly around trauma and mental health, and improving virtual learning,” Gym said.

“Our ultimate goal must be bringing our young people, school staff and communities back to schools that are safer, healthier and more equipped to support our young people than they were before.”

Safety measures

All district employees, students and guardians must wear a mask or face covering while in school.

Classrooms and bathrooms will be set up to ensure social distancing, and plexiglass barriers will be installed in offices.

All district buildings will have enhanced cleaning protocols with EPA-approved cleaning supplies, touchless hand sanitizer and a touchless hydration station.

There will be a maximum occupancy sign outside each room and signage to promote social distancing and other safety measures throughout the schools.

Every room that will be occupied will be vetted by the PFT’s environmental scientist. Air purifiers will also replace the window fans that have been installed in classrooms without adequate ventilation.

“From the very first days of the pandemic, we mostly worked with taking the guidance from public health experts from the Philadelphia Department of Health, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Hite said.

“This has been the mainstay of efforts for educating children to understand balancing physical and mental health concerns and planning to determine interest,” he added. “We will continue to ensure that everyone in our buildings and everyone who enters our buildings are completely safe with these guidelines and safety measures that are in place.”

States easing virus restrictions despite experts' warnings

MISSION, Kan. — With the U.S. vaccination drive picking up speed and a third formula on the way, states eager to reopen for business are easing coronavirus restrictions despite warnings from health experts that the outbreak is far from over and that moving too quickly could prolong the misery.

Pennsylvania is easing restrictions on large gatherings, paving the way for a limited number of fans to attend sporting events. The commonwealth is also lifting restrictions on out-of-state travel.

Massachusetts on Monday made it much easier to grab dinner and a show. In Missouri, where individual communities get to make the rules, the two biggest metropolitan areas — St. Louis and Kansas City — are relaxing some measures. Iowa’s governor recently lifted mask requirements and limits on the number of people allowed in bars and restaurants, while the town of Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, now lets establishments stay open until midnight.

Mike Lee, who owns Trezo Mare Restaurant & Lounge in Kansas City, said he hopes increased vaccine access, combined with warmer weather, will improve business.

“I think that people are excited to put this past them and be able to start to get back to their ways of doing things,” Lee said.

The push to reopen comes as COVID-19 vaccine shipments to the states are ramping up. Nearly 20% of the nation’s adults — or over 50 million people — have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 10% have been fully inoculated 2 1/2 months into the campaign to snuff out the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Johnson & Johnson shipped out nearly 4 million doses of its newly authorized, one-shot COVID-19 vaccine Sunday night to be delivered to states for use starting on Tuesday. The company will deliver about 16 million more doses by the end of March and a total of 100 million by the end of June.

That adds to the supply being distributed by Pfizer and Moderna and should help the nation amass enough doses by midsummer to vaccinate all adults. The White House is encouraging Americans to take the first dose available to them, regardless of manufacturer.

In New York City, where limited indoor dining has resumed, officials said the J&J vaccine will help the city to inoculate millions more people by summer, including through door-to-door vaccinations of homebound senior citizens.

But the efforts come with strong warnings from health officials against reopening too quickly, as worrisome coronavirus variants spread.

On Monday, the head of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, urgently warned state officials and ordinary Americans not to let down their guard, saying she is “really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures that we have recommended.”

“I remain deeply concerned about a potential shift in the trajectory of the pandemic,” she said. “We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground that we have gained.”

Cases and hospitalizations have plunged since the end of January, and deaths have also dropped sharply, but they are still running at dangerously high levels and have even risen slightly over the past several days.

“We cannot be resigned to 70,000 cases a day and 2,000 daily deaths,” Walensky said.

Overall, the outbreak has killed more than a half-million Americans.

The vaccine already is contributing to a decrease in severe cases and deaths among older people, and is “quickly becoming a bigger contributor” nationally, Justin Lessler, an expert in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University, said in an email.

“I suspect we will see it overtake natural infection as the biggest driver of immunity late spring earliest, more likely midsummer,” Lessler said.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, said he believes states and cities have leeway to ease some restrictions because hospitals no longer are at capacity in most communities. But “I do think that masks are likely going to need to be kept in place for some time until we get more of our vulnerable populations vaccinated,” he said.

“It is important for restaurants who are increasing their capacity to remember that we are still in a pandemic and to continue to follow some of those rules,” Adalja said.

The Biden administration wants to see all three vaccines distributed evenly, while also acknowledging that the easy-to-handle J&J vaccine will be used in pop-up mobile sites and locations without freezer storage capacity.

States are hoping that the surging vaccine supply will help tamp down new infections.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker lifted restaurant capacity limits entirely. Theaters can open at 50% capacity, with a maximum of 500 people. And capacity limits across all businesses have been raised to 50%.

Las Vegas on Monday became the latest of the nation’s largest school districts to return children to classrooms. Pre-K children to third graders will go back two days a week, with other grades to be phased in by early April.

And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders reached an agreement aimed at getting most children back in classrooms by the end of March. Under the deal announced Monday, school districts could receive up to $6.6 billion if they reopen by March 31.

The U.S. ranks fourth in the world, behind Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Britain, in the number of doses administered relative to the population, according to data compiled by the University of Oxford.

President Joe Biden fell well short of his goal of setting up 100 new federally operated mass-vaccination sites by the end of February, with just seven up and running.

White House vaccination coordinator Jeff Zients also acknowledged that scheduling of vaccination appointments “remains too difficult in too many places.” But he said the White House is working with states to improve scheduling systems and is exploring federal support for call centers to make it easier for people to get appointments.

Democratic voting bill would make biggest changes in decades

WASHINGTON — As Congress begins debate this week on sweeping voting and ethics legislation, Democrats and Republicans can agree on one thing: If signed into law, it would usher in the biggest overhaul of U.S. elections law in at least a generation.

House Resolution 1, Democrats’ 791-page bill, would touch virtually every aspect of the electoral process — striking down hurdles to voting erected in the name of election security, curbing partisan gerrymandering and curtailing the influence of big money in politics.

Republicans see those very measures as threats that would both limit the power of states to conduct elections and ultimately benefit Democrats, notably with higher turnout among minority voters.

The stakes are prodigious, with control of Congress and the fate of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda in the balance. But at its core, a more foundational principle of American democracy is at play: access to the ballot.

“This goes above partisan interests. The vote is at the heart of our democratic system of government,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonpartisan good government organization Democracy 21. “That’s the battleground. And everyone knows it.”

Barriers to voting are as old as the country, but in more recent history they have come in the form of voter ID laws and other restrictions that are up for debate in statehouses across the country.

Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who sponsored the bill, said that outside of Congress “these aren’t controversial reforms.” Much of it, he noted, was derived from recommendations of a bipartisan commission.

Yet to many Republicans, it amounts to an unwarranted federal intrusion into a process that states should control.

“It imposes from Washington, D.C., a one-size-fits-all regulatory scheme on each state,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Monday during a hearing on the bill. “What’s worse, it does this even though states have been traditionally allowed to generally run elections however they see fit.”

Citing Congress’ constitutional authority over federal elections, Democrats say national rules are needed to make voting more uniform, accessible and fair. The bill would mandate early voting, same-day registration and other long-sought changes that Republicans reject.

It would also require so-called dark money political groups to disclose anonymous donors, create reporting requirements for online political ads and appropriate nearly $2 billion for election infrastructure upgrades. Future presidents would be obligated to disclose their tax returns, which former President Donald Trump refused to do.

Debate over the bill comes at a critical moment, particularly for Democrats.

Acting on Trump’s repeated false claims of a stolen election, dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatures are pushing bills that would make it more difficult to vote. Democrats argue this would disproportionately hit low-income voters, or those of color, who are critical constituencies for their party.

The U.S. is also on the cusp of a once-in-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts, a highly partisan affair that is typically controlled by state legislatures. With Republicans controlling the majority of statehouses the process alone could help the GOP win enough seats to recapture the House. The Democratic bill would instead require that the boundaries be drawn by independent commissions.

Previous debates over voting rights have often been esoteric and complex, with much of the debate in Congress focused on whether to restore a “preclearance” process in the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court invalidated in 2013. For decades, it had required certain states and jurisdictions with large minority populations and a history of discrimination to get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures.

But Republicans say that Trump’s repeated attacks on the 2020 election have electrified his supporters, even as courts and his last attorney general, William Barr, found them without merit.

“This is now a base issue,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and Trump administration official in the Department of Homeland Security who is leading a conservative coalition opposed to the bill. “Democratic leadership is willing to sacrifice their own members to pass radical legislation. They are cannon fodder that Nancy Pelosi doesn’t care about.”

Cuccinelli is overseeing a $5 million campaign aimed at pressuring Senate Democrats to oppose the bill.

Democrats say their aim is to make it easier for more people to vote, regardless of partisan affiliation. And they counter that Republican objections are based more in preserving their own power by hindering minorities from voting than a principled opposition.

“The anti-democratic forces in the Republican Party have focused their energy on peddling unwarranted and expensive voter restriction measures,” said Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her 2018 Georgia bid to become the first Black female governor in U.S. history. “We all have a right to take our seat at the table and our place at the ballot box.”

The bill was an object of intense focus at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, over the weekend, a gathering where Trump’s lies about mass election fraud took center stage.

In a speech Sunday, Trump branded the bill as “a disaster” and a “monster” that “cannot be allowed to pass.”

Meanwhile, CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp told attendees that if they could internalize one thing from this year’s conference, it was to “do all you can” to stop “this unconstitutional power grab” from becoming law.

“What we saw this election will be what you will see every single election. And we have to fight it,” Schlapp warned ominously.

Trump and his allies have made false claims that the 2020 election was marred by widespread voter fraud. But dozens of legal challenges they put forth were dismissed, including by the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, though, the biggest obstacle Democrats face in passing the bill is themselves.

Despite staunch GOP opposition, the bill is all but certain to pass the House when it’s scheduled for a floor vote Wednesday. But challenges lie ahead in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.

On some legislation, it takes only 51 votes to pass, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker. On a deeply divisive bill like this one, they would need 60 votes under the Senate’s rules to overcome a Republican filibuster — a tally they are unlikely to reach.

Some have discussed options like lowering the threshold to break a filibuster, or creating a workaround that would allow some legislation to be exempt. Democratic congressional aides say the conversations are fluid but underway.

Many in the party remain hopeful, and Biden’s administration has said the bill is a priority. But the window to pass legislation before the 2022 midterms is closing.

“We may not get the opportunity to make this change again for many, many decades,” said Sarbanes, the bill’s lead sponsor. “Shame on us if we don’t get this done.”

As Philadelphia educators get vaccinated, Black district teachers remain underrepresented

African Americans are underrepresented among a newly targeted group getting a significant chunk of the city’s weekly COVID-19 vaccines: District teachers.

Black teachers make up 24.5% of the approximately 9,100 educators in the School District of Philadelphia for the 2020-21 school year, according to data listed on the district’s website. African Americans make up 44% of the city’s population.

White teachers are overrepresented among the teacher pool, accounting for nearly 67% of district teachers, while making up 34% of the city’s population.

The racial demographics among district teachers reveal inequities facing the rollout of the Kenney administration’s vaccination program, which has administered fewer vaccines to Blacks and other people of color in terms of their share of the city’s population.

Last week the Kenney administration kicked off a partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to vaccinate city educators and school staff in district, charter and private schools, as well as day-care workers.

The Kenney administration has pledged to commit up to 9,000 doses a week to vaccinate teachers, amounting to nearly 25% of the approximate 37,000 first COVID-19 vaccine doses the city expects to have this week, a health official said last week.

Asked whether the underrepresentation of Black educators and other teachers of color will skew the city’s racial data in the coming weeks, Department of Public Health spokesman James Garrow was unsure.

“It’s impossible to say if the effort to vaccinate teachers, school staff, and childcare provider staff will alter the racial breakdown of the city’s vaccine effort because we don’t know how many people will assent to receiving the vaccine,” he said.

Monica Lewis, a spokeswoman for the district, said in an email that approximately 13,000 total district staff, including teachers, are eligible for the vaccine, which is not mandatory. She avoided answering questions about how the district would ensure an equitable distribution of vaccine doses or steps it has taken to address racial disparities among its teacher population in recent years.

“Since this program started, the district has stated that it is our hope that employees take advantage of this opportunity as vaccinations are yet another layer of safety to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Lewis said.

Sharif El-Mekki, the CEO of the nonprofit Center for Black Educator Developement, said district officials “don’t need any more warnings” about the need to increase the racial diversity of its educators.

Yet El-Mekki said the racial disparities among district teachers represented systemic barriers to individuals of color becoming teachers and were not the fault of the district alone.

El-Mekki said the district and its partners, including the Kenney administration and state officials, have made strides in recent years in their efforts to support and attract teachers of color to the district but he stressed more was needed.

“We need to triple-down on it. We’ve had incremental change but we need to make even faster developments,” said El-Mekki, who heads the nonprofit that recently launched a $3.1-million program to recruit and support Black educators across the U.S.

Asked whether the Kenney administration considered the racial disparities among educators before launching the plan to vaccine educators, Garrow said the city’s Vaccine Advisory Committee (VAC) made the decision to vaccinate those groups because they are at an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“The administration has followed the Advisory Committee’s recommendations and adopted the priority scheme that they developed,” Garrow said.

“Furthermore, by vaccinating teachers, school staff, and child care staff, parents will likely feel more comfortable getting their children back into school and child care, which is important for their development,” he added.

Garrow said that child care provider staff and school staff were “more likely” to be from communities of color than teachers but did not specific figures.

The school district has made little progress in hiring teachers of color for a district where students of color make up about 85% of the student population this year.

Black teachers accounted for 24.6% of Philadelphia district teachers during the 2016-17 school year, according to district data. That same year, 68.4% of teachers identified as white.

Charter schools fared about the same during the 2016-17 school year, according a report from the nonprofit Research for Action using data from the state Department of Education.

Five years ago, educators in Philadelphia charter schools were overwhelmingly white — 70.3% — while Black teachers accounted for 19.9% of the teacher pool, according to Research for Action’s report.

The share of vaccines going to African Americans has ticked up in recent weeks, yet the COVID-19 vaccine racial gap persists more than two months after the first vaccine dose was administered in the city.

African Americans have received 22% of the first COVID-19 doses in the city as of Friday, up from 15% on Feb. 10, Garrow said. While whites have received more than 50% of the vaccine doses, according to city data.

Some district teachers are expected to return to their classrooms Wednesday in anticipation of students resuming in-person learning on March 8, the city and school officials said Monday.