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Omicron upends return to U.S. schools and workplaces

The School District of Philadelphia is among the school systems around the U.S. switching back to online learning for 77 schools because of the explosion in COVID-19 cases.

Other school districts in the country extended their holiday break Monday or switched back to virtual learning because of the rise in cases, while others pressed ahead with in-person classes amid a seemingly growing sense that Americans will have to learn to co-exist with the virus.

Caught between pleas from teachers fearful of infection and parents who want their children in class, school districts in cities such as New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit and beyond found themselves in a difficult position midway through the academic year because of the super-contagious omicron variant.

Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite posted on the district website Monday evening: “District leaders have been meeting regularly with local health officials to monitor the COVID-19 situation, and we’ve also been closely tracking data to determine COVID’s impact on staff coverage in schools. We will continue to do this and make school-by-school decisions in the best interests of our students and staff. Based on the latest data as of this evening, we are making the following updates to our plan for the return to school: 77 schools will be temporarily shifting to 100% virtual learning starting Tuesday, January 4th through at least Friday, January 7th, 2022.”

Prior to Hite’s decision, the head of the city’s teachers union called for the school district of Philadelphia to go remote temporarily so that it has time to ensure COVID-19 mitigation strategies are in place before students and staff return from the holiday break.

“Educators believe that children learn best when they’re in the classroom,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). “Educators do their jobs best when they’re in the classroom with the children, face to face.”

Jordan said he believed the district needed to pivot to virtual instruction for a week while it makes sure its safety measures are completely in place.

New York City, home of the nation’s largest school system, reopened classrooms to roughly 1 million students with a stockpile of take-home COVID-19 test kits and plans to double the number of random tests done in schools.

“We are going to be safe, and we will be open to educate our children,” newly sworn-in Mayor Eric Adams said on MSNBC.

New Yorker Trisha White said that she feels the risk is the same for her 9-year-old son in or out of school and that being with classmates is far better for him than remote learning.

“He could get the virus outside of school,” she said as she dropped the boy off. “So what can you do? You know, I wouldn’t blame the school system. They’re trying their best.”

While the teachers union had asked the mayor to postpone in-person learning for a week, city officials have long said that mask requirements, testing and other safety measures mean that children are safe in school. The city also has a vaccination mandate for employees.

New cases of COVID-19 in the city shot up from a daily average of about 17,000 in the week before the holidays to nearly 37,000 last week.

Across the U.S., new COVID-19 cases have tripled in the past two weeks to over 400,000 a day, the highest level on record, amid a rush by many Americans to get tested.

The high infection rates and resulting worker shortages are putting a heavy burden on employers large and small. Thousands of airline flights have been canceled in recent days, and many businesses have shelved return-to-work plans.

Weekend garbage collection was delayed in New Orleans, and jury trials in several Colorado counties were suspended. Some libraries on New York’s Long Island and a ski resort in New Hampshire had to close.

Dawn Crawley, CEO of House Cleaning Heroes, a cleaning service based in Herndon, Virginia, said she had to cancel four of 20 cleaning jobs for Tuesday because four employees were sick — three with COVID-19.

“The fear is it will run through the team” as well as customers, she said.

Policymakers and health authorities have been mindful of the toll on the economy and the education system.

Public heath experts have said that eradicating the virus is unlikely and that the world will instead have to find a way to keep COVID-19 down to an acceptable level, the way it does with the flu.

Last week, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut the recommended COVID-19 isolation period from 10 days to five, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said: “We want to make sure there is a mechanism by which we can safely continue to keep society functioning while following the science.”

In another development Monday that could have a bearing on the ability of schools to stay open, the Food and Drug Administration gave its OK for Pfizer booster shots for children as young as 12. Boosters already are recommended for everyone 16 and older.

Elsewhere around the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced Monday that schools will now reopen Jan. 11 because of omicron’s rise. Furthermore, the district’s 600,000 students and roughly 73,000 employees will have to show a negative COVID-19 test result to enter campus. The district will have a testing site as well as take-home test kits available.

Syracuse, New York, canceled school Monday because of the increasing number of infections and a lack of substitute teachers.

In Wisconsin, the 75,000-student Milwaukee school system is going back to virtual instruction Tuesday because of rising cases among staff members. The district said it is aiming to return to in-person classes Jan. 10.

The Madison, Wisconsin, district also announced a shift to virtual learning, beginning Thursday.

Detroit School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told parents there will be no in-person or online learning through Wednesday because of a high rate of infection among employees that could lead to extensive spread of COVID-19 and “excessive staff shortages.”

The roughly 350,000 students in the Chicago school system returned, but a dispute between district leaders and the teachers union over safety measures could disrupt classes later this week. The union said it may vote Tuesday for remote teaching in the nation’s third-largest district.

The Peoria, Illinois, district extended winter break by a week.

Schools in Davenport, Iowa, surprised parents early Monday by announcing the cancellation of all classes for the day because of a shortage of bus drivers that was blamed at least in part on COVID-19.

Minnesota’s educators braced for a spike in cases as classrooms reopened as scheduled.

“What I’ve heard from superintendents is that they are nervous about omicron,” said Bob Indihar, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association. “It seems to be the new normal that changes are going to happen and quarantines and people being out are just part of the process now. Districts are kind of taking it in stride.”

The president of the National Parents Union, a network of parent organizations, called the sudden switch back to virtual learning “an abomination.”

“Once again, parents are left scrambling at the last minute and, worse, far too many children are being deprived of an in-person learning experience, which is critical for their academic and social-emotional development,” Keri Rodrigues said in a statement.


Local_news
Philly City Councilmembers discuss 2022 goals

As a new year begins, several Philadelphia City Council members have their eyes set on specific goals in 2022 to help create a better, safer and equal opportunity market for all residents.

***

Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., D-4th District, said he is looking to continue his work with the Citizens Police Oversight Commission after the five-member selection committee was established. The next step will be vetting and interviewing candidates who will be one of the nine people to work on the commission.

Nominees must then be confirmed by a majority vote of the Philadelphia City Council. Once selected, these people will serve the public to oversee the conduct, policies, and practices of the Philadelphia Police Department.

Another project Jones said he is looking forward to is the 100 Shooter Review. The committee for the 100 Shooter Review has analyzed data over the past year to view trends and hypothesize solutions to reduce all gun violence in Philadelphia.

“Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr. will continue working with the 100 Shooting Review Committee as they move forward with compiling its data into a report for presentation to the public. Such a report will be presented before and evaluated by the City Council Committee on Public Safety,” said a statement from his office.

This spring Jones is opening the Fourth District Container Village. This will be fa flea market utilizing recycled and refurbished shipping containers will open in West Philadelphia in the Parkside neighborhood, allowing vendors to sell merchandise.

***

Councilmember at-Large Isaiah Thomas is looking forward to fulfilling his promise to prioritize youth in 2022.

“The priority that I campaigned on, and will always be my top priority, is quality of life of Philadelphia’s youth,” Thomas said in a statement. “From our schools to out-of-school time and overall wellness — we need to raise the bar for our youth people constantly.”

Thomas said he wants to continue the work on the bills that he had passed in 2021. For example, his Keep It Local Bill (procurement reform) encouraged driving the local economy by using and advocating for local business use. And his Driving Equality (police-community relations improvement) legislation which was signed to limit what is considered a primary reason to stop a vehicle and what should be regarded as secondary, was landmark legislation and the first of its kind.

“I also look forward to working to make Philadelphia a more business-friendly city for every neighborhood; this will be our best way to attract new residents and tourists,” Thomas said.

***

Councilmember at-Large Allan Domb said in 2022, leaders must be dedicated to stopping violence in Philadelphia.

“We must remain committed to solving the violence epidemic — there’s nothing more important than reducing and preventing gun violence across our city,” Domb said in a statement.

He said that city officials need to think outside the box and utilize every tool available.

“This includes utilizing our academic experts to help us evaluate our efforts, deploying tech surveillance and being smarter than those causing issues, and examining innovative DNA analyses to help solve crimes and assist prosecutors,” Domb said.

He is also pursuing legislation that reduces Philadelphia’s tax burden to help the job market.

“Additionally, we must continue our work to bring quality services to all Philadelphians, including much-needed support for creating 21st-century schools that will help our city compete for residents regionally, exploring innovative waste collection systems, and expanding outdoor dining options. That is equal and fair for everyone,” Domb said.

***

City Council President Darrell Clarke said his goals in 2022 are centered on reducing poverty, providing economic hope and opportunity, and, most importantly, reducing gun violence.

“Our $400 million Neighborhood Preservation Initiative is underway, and it will provide more affordable housing, support for first-time homebuyers, job opportunities, neighborhood revitalization, and eviction protections — the largest single city investment in neighborhoods in Philadelphia history,” Clarke said. “And we need everyone on the same page — the mayor, Philadelphia police, the District Attorney, the courts and City Council — working together to reduce gun violence and make our city safer for everyone.”

***

Councilmember Mark Squilla, D-1st District, said he wants to concentrate on crime and illegal drug use in 2022.

In 2021, drug overdoses in Philadelphia rose 10%. Squilla said he intends to pursue innovative programs to help those suffering from homelessness and drug addiction. He is a big proponent of reinstating drug courts and community courts and has worked with all stakeholders trying to do so.

***

Councilmember at-Large Derek Green said that he is concentrating on making sure 2022 is not a repeat of 2021. Green stated that all public agencies need to be on the same page this year for a substantial decrease in gun violence.

Beyond addressing gun violence overall, Green said he would continue to hold hearings on the connection between poverty and gun violence.

He said that he will work with businesses to provide more jobs. Green has also been working for years to help establish a public bank, and it got committee approval during a City Council hearing in December.

Additionally, Green said he hopes to move past COVID-19 and return to in-person meetings.

“Well, what I’m looking forward to the most in addition to having a safer city, a city where we can hopefully come together beyond the two dimensions of Zoom and Skype and WebEx, but be much more in person,” Green said. “Hopefully, as we go through the first quarter of next year, you know more about the omicron variant will have some waning effects. And hopefully, we don’t have a new variant in 2022 that causes challenges and that we add more and more people getting vaccinated so we can try to get back to the life that we had pre-pandemic.”

***

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, D-3rd District, had some legislation passed to help Philadelphians with access to affordable housing in her area of jurisdiction in West Philadelphia in 2021.

She said that her goals and points of emphasis in the new year are to ensure that the city is successfully prepared for that legislation to start within six months.

“First and foremost, my office will be using the next six months to ensure that the city is prepared for successful implementation of the Mixed-Income Neighborhoods Overlay and that it can be implemented with integrity,” Gauthier said.

She said that she is looking forward to a hearing about expiring affordable housing contracts throughout the citiy’s housing developments.

“We hope that the hearing will result in some tangible next steps in terms of interventions that can be taken at all levels of government to address this urgent concern,” Gauthier said. “Additionally, we will work to get our community land trust legislation — which would give grassroots community groups a leg-up in the competition to acquire city-owned land for community-serving purposes, such as affordable housing or community gardens — across the finish line.”

Gauthier will also focus on the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, a $400 million investment by Council that will support affordable housing, prevent evictions, and more.

City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, D-2nd District as chairman of the Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention, said he is looking to develop the Office for Victim Advocates.

“This is an office that has been created with legislation that I introduced with City Council to create an office to advocate for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence,” Johnson said. “And so this office will be a hub and working in partnership with our District Attorney’s Office, Philadelphia Police Department, and other violence victims advocacy organizations to provide a voice for those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.”

In December, Johnson’s legislation to hold a hearing to look at the connection between domestic violence and gun violence was approved. Domestic violence-motivated shootings increased in 2021.

“We will be hosting a hearing to examine the interconnection between domestic violence and gun violence here in the city of Philadelphia,” Johnson said. “We have seen a significant increase in women losing their lives to senseless gun violence. So we want to see how we can do more and protect women, and most importantly, make sure they aren’t victims of senseless gun violence here in the city of Philadelphia.”

Towards the end of the year, a report from the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory about trauma and mental health issues among youth. Johnson said he wants to hold hearings examining the trauma of young people and the link to violence.

“I don’t believe that a young person is born with the mentality to shoot and murder another individual. So we want to take a deeper dive and look at the behavioral and mental health issues that impact young people and and and how it correlates to the significant gun violence that we see here in the city of Philadelphia,” Johnson said.

On top of that, Johnson will be hosting hearings to address diversity regarding government contracts in Philadelphia.

“Currently, less than 20% of city contracts were awarded to minority firms, but separate from minority firms, particularly African Americans receive less than nine percent of those contracts,” Johnson said. “And so we want to make sure that we’re supporting Black and brown businesses here in Philadelphia, making sure that they have a seat at the table when it comes to the contracts that are being doled out.”


News
Child tax credit's extra help ends, just as COVID surges anew

For millions of American families with children, the 15th of the month took on a special significance in 2021: It was the day they received their monthly child benefit, part of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic.

The payments, which started in July and amounted to hundreds of dollars a month for most families, have helped millions of American families pay for food, rent and child care; kept millions of children out of poverty; and injected billions of dollars into the U.S. economy, according to government data and independent research.

Now, the benefit — an expansion of the existing child tax credit — is ending, just as the latest wave of coronavirus cases is keeping people home from work and threatening to set off a new round of furloughs. Economists warn that the one-two punch of expiring aid and rising cases could put a chill on the once red-hot economic recovery and cause severe hardship for millions of families already living close to the poverty line.

“It’s going to be hard next month, and just thinking about it, it really makes me want to bite my nails to the quick,” said Anna Lara, a mother of two young children in Huntington, West Virginia. “Honestly, it’s going to be scary. It’s going to be hard going back to not having it.”

Lara, 32, lost her job in the pandemic, and with the cost of child care rising, she has not been able to return to work. Her partner kept his job, but the child benefit helped the couple make ends meet at a time of reduced income and rising prices.

“Your children watch you, and if you worry, they catch on to that,” she said. “With that extra cushion, we didn’t have to worry all the time.”

The end of the extra assistance for parents is the latest in a long line of benefits “cliffs” that Americans have encountered as pandemic aid programs have expired. The Paycheck Protection Program, which supported hundreds of thousands of small businesses, ended in March. Expanded unemployment benefits ended in September and earlier in some states. The federal eviction moratorium expired over the summer. The last round of stimulus payments landed in Americans’ bank accounts in the spring.

Relative to those programs, the rollback in the child tax credit is small. The Treasury Department paid out about $80 billion over six months in the form of checks and direct deposits of up to $300 per child each month. That is far less than the more than $240 billion in stimulus payments issued on a single day last March.

Unlike most other programs created in response to the pandemic, the child benefit was never intended to be temporary, at least according to many of its backers. Congress approved it for a single year as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, but many progressives hoped that the payments, once started, would prove too popular to stop.

That didn’t happen. Polls found the public roughly divided over whether the program should be extended, with opinions splitting along partisan and generational lines. And the expanded tax credit failed to win over the individual whose opinion mattered most: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who cited concerns over the cost and structure of the program in his decision to oppose President Joe Biden’s climate, tax and social policy bill. The bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, cannot proceed in the evenly divided Senate without Manchin’s support.

To supporters of the child benefit, the failure to extend it is especially frustrating because, according to most analyses, the program itself has been a remarkable success. Researchers at Columbia University estimate that the payments kept 3.8 million children out of poverty in November, a nearly 30% reduction in the child poverty rate. Other studies have found that the benefit reduced hunger, lowered financial stress among recipients and increased overall consumer spending, especially in rural states that received the most money per capita.

Congress in the spring expanded the existing child tax credit in three ways. First, it made the benefit more generous, providing as much as $3,600 per child, up from $2,000. Second, it began paying the credit in monthly installments, usually deposited directly into recipients’ bank accounts, turning the once-yearly windfall into something closer to the children’s allowances common in Europe.

Finally, the bill made the full benefit available to millions who had previously been unable to take full advantage of the credit because they earned too little to qualify. Poverty experts say that change, known in tax jargon as “full refundability,” was particularly significant because without it, one-third of children — including half of all Black and Hispanic children, and 70% of children being raised by single mothers — did not receive the full credit. Biden’s plan would have made that provision permanent.

“What we’ve seen with the child tax credit is a policy success story that was unfolding, but it’s a success story that we risk stopping in its tracks just as it was getting started,” said Megan Curran, director of policy at Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. “The weight of the evidence is clear here in terms of what the policy is doing. It’s reducing child poverty and food insufficiency.”

But the expanded tax credit doesn’t just go to the poor. Couples earning as much as $150,000 a year could receive the full $3,600 benefit — $3,000 for children 6 and older — and even wealthier families qualify for the original $2,000 credit. Critics of the policy, including Manchin, have argued that it makes little sense to provide aid to relatively well-off families. Many supporters of the credit say they’d happily limit its availability to wealthier households in return for maintaining it for poorer ones.

Manchin has also publicly questioned the wisdom of unconditional cash payments and has privately voiced concerns that recipients could spend the money on opioids, comments that were first reported by The Wall Street Journal and confirmed by a person familiar with the discussion. But a survey conducted by the Census Bureau found that most recipients used the money to buy food, clothing or other necessities, and many saved some of the money or paid down debt. Other surveys have found similar results.

For one of Manchin’s constituents, Lara, the first monthly check last year arrived at an opportune moment. Her dishwasher had broken days earlier, and the $550 a month that she and her family received from the federal government meant they could replace it.

Lara, who has a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son and whose partner earns about $40,000 a year, said the family had long lived “right on the edge of need” — not poor but never able to save enough to withstand more than a modest setback.

The monthly child benefit, she said, let them step a bit further back from the edge. It allowed her to get new shoes and a new car seat for her daughter, stock up on laundry detergent when she found it on sale and fix the brakes on her car.

“None of the dash lights are on, which is amazing,” she said.

Some researchers have questioned the policy’s effectiveness, particularly over the long term. Bruce D. Meyer, an economist at the University of Chicago who studies poverty, said that whatever the merits of direct cash payments at the height of the pandemic-induced disruptions, a permanent policy of providing unconditional cash to parents could have unintended consequences. He and several co-authors recently published a working paper finding that the child benefit could discourage people from working, in part because it eliminated the work incentives built into the previous version of the tax credit.

“Early on, we just wanted to get cash in people’s hands — we were worried about a recession; we were worried about people being able to pay for their groceries,” Meyer said. Now, he said, “we certainly should be more focused on the longer-term effects, which include likely larger effects on labor supply.”

Analyses of the data since the new child benefit took effect, however, have found no evidence that it has done much to discourage people from working, and some researchers say it could actually lead more people to work by making it easier for parents of young children to afford child care.

“There’s every reason to believe that in the current labor market, the child tax credit is work-enabling, and no evidence to the contrary has been presented,” said Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, a research organization in Washington.

Hammond said the child benefit should also have broader economic benefits. In a report last summer, he estimated that the expansion would increase consumer spending by $27 billion nationally and create the equivalent of 500,000 full-time jobs. The biggest effect, on a percentage basis, would come in rural, mostly Republican-voting states where families are larger and incomes are lower, on average.

Some Republican critics of the expanded child tax credit, including Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, have argued that it has essentially done too much to increase spending — that by giving people more money to spend when the supply chain is already strained, the government is contributing to faster inflation.

But many economists are skeptical that the tax credit has played much of a role in causing high inflation, in part because it is small compared with both the economy and the earlier rounds of aid distributed during the pandemic.

“That’s a noninflationary program,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at accounting firm RSM. “That’s dedicated toward necessities, not luxuries.”

For those receiving the benefit, inflation is an argument for maintaining it. Lara said she had noticed prices going up for groceries, utilities and especially gas, stretching her budget even thinner.

“Right now, both of my vehicles need gas, and I can’t put gas in the car,” she said. “But it’s OK, because I’ve got groceries in the house, and the kids can play outside.”


Local_news
Analyst: Philly on track to build record number of apartments in 2022

Developers could build a record number of rental units in Philadelphia in 2022.

Based on the volume of building permits approved by the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections in 2021, the final figure for the year could balloon to 10,000 — more than triple the average annual total of 3,000 to 4,000 new apartments.

“This is a massive wave of new construction. Much bigger than we’ve even seen before,” said Kevin Gillen, a senior research fellow with the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University and the analyst behind the data.

It’s unclear if all 10,000 units will be built in 2022, or even in the years ahead. Gillen said it’s likely that some developers filed permits preemptively, so they can take advantage of the city’s existing 10-year tax abatement for new construction before changes to the controversial program take effect.

Starting in 2022, the value of the abatement will shrink by 10% each year after the first year. But property owners with building permits in hand as of Dec. 31, 2021, can still avoid paying 100% of the building’s real estate taxes for the full 10 years.

Either way, Gillen said, the surge is indicative of developers being “very bullish” on Philadelphia’s rental market.

“Otherwise, they would not have bothered filing for all those permits,” he said.

But as developers pounce on market opportunities, homeowners and those seeking to buy are seeing the other side of the coin.

Last summer, home prices were up 20%. They’re now up just 10%, a noteworthy drop and a potential sign that prices could level out sooner rather than later.

“You’re not seeing signs to say this thing is cooling. We’re not there yet. But we are definitely seeing signs of deceleration from the white-hot conditions that were occurring over the last year,” said Gillen.

He attributed the dip in prices to the historically low number of houses listed for sale in Philadelphia right now. That fact, said Gillen, has caused some homebuyers, especially the fatigued ones, to hit pause on their search until they can be more certain they’ll get their bang for their buck and not have to settle for a lesser property after multiple bidding wars.

Others may be reevaluating because life has gotten more expensive overall, thanks to the U.S. inflation rate nearing a 40-year high. And still others can no longer consider buying a home because prices are still outpacing income growth, a fact that squares with a decades-old trend in Philadelphia.

Philly sees growing gaps in homeownership rates and income

The city is now the least affordable housing market in the region, said Gillen. The median home price in Philadelphia is now roughly $225,000. It was roughly $170,000 three or four years ago. (Median represents the middle number; half the houses sold for more than that price, half sold for less.)

“With our poverty rate, we cannot afford to have the house price levels that are approaching the levels of other, more affluent cities,” said Gillen.

Researchers with the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia recently cited the gap between home prices and incomes to help explain another one: the widening homeownership gap between Black and white Philadelphians.

Over the last 20 years, the median home value in Philadelphia jumped from 2½ times to five times the median income of Black households.

The analysis, released earlier this month, also posits that access to mortgage loans and the ongoing impact of redlining have contributed to persistent racial disparities in homeownership rates, to the detriment of the entire city.

“It has a huge impact on the Philadelphia economy,” said Theresa Y. Singleton, one of the report’s authors and a senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. “Homeowners bring taxation, and they bring consumption.

Gillen said all of that, particularly the gap between home prices and incomes, could also translate to fewer homeowners and more renters in Philadelphia. For the moment, those populations are pretty evenly split.

Advocates argue fewer homeowners means less intergenerational wealth and more fragmented communities.

Tayyib Smith, principal of Meta Global and a member of The Collective, said Philadelphia can’t afford either amid a development boom that has almost exclusively benefited the city’s overwhelmingly white development industry while compromising the lives of low-income Philadelphians in communities of color.

“I and my partners and I have some exciting announcements in the early part of the year,” said Smith. “But if we’re talking about the system writ large, I think it’s abominable.”


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