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.”

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