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Credit: Gary Lin

Some Penn professors have mixed feelings about sending their children to in-person classes as the Philadelphia School District attempts to reopen for the third time this year during the pandemic.

Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced on Jan. 27 that prekindergarten through second-grade students will be able to return to in-person learning for two days a week on Feb. 22, with teachers — who have not yet been fully vaccinated — expected to report to schools Feb. 8 to begin preparing for the reopening. Hite’s proposal is supported by new guidelines from the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education that recommend elementary school students return to in-person learning, even in counties with “substantial transmission” of COVID-19.

The school district's safety guidelines for in-person instruction include mandatory mask-wearing, plexiglass partitions, hand sanitizer stations, and pre-screening for COVID-19 for all students and staff.

Only students whose families signed up for in-person learning last fall will be able to return to the classroom this semester. Hite added that other high-need students will be prioritized for in-person learning, including English language learners, special education students, and career and technical education students.

Following local school closures in March 2020, the Philadelphia School District has attempted to reopen schools twice within the past year. In July, the school board proposed a hybrid model, but reversed their decision after receiving backlash from parents and teachers. The district planned another reopening in November, but reversed its decision again after an increase in COVID-19 cases.

The district's most recent decision to reopen followed requests from Mayor Jim Kenney and members of City Council for students to return to in-person learning, especially students from low-income families.

French lecturer Mélanie Péron was not hopeful that schools would reopen this semester. She pointed to issues with school infrastructure, such as poor air circulation and small classrooms that cannot accommodate placing desks far away from each other.

Péron has two children in third grade and fifth grade at Albert M. Greenfield Elementary School and a third child in eleventh grade at the Science Leadership Academy, who all have been doing remote learning since school closures last March. She acknowledged that she is privileged to have not been as economically impacted by the pandemic as other families, and that she has enough room at home for her children to learn online.

Still, she admitted there is a stressful psychological effect that comes with having children at home and working in the same space.

“I feel like the headmistress of a boarding school, doubled with a cook, a governess — I’m doing the laundry, and everything [is] in the same place. It’s making sure my kids are good students, making sure my students’ needs are met. It’s a huge job,” Péron said, emphasizing that there is no longer a separation between work and home life, as she balances her responsibilities as both a teacher and a mother.

Péron said she is especially concerned about the aftermath of the pandemic, and the effect of social isolation and virtual learning on children. Online learning contributes to high amounts of screen time for children, and there is concern that virtual learning is contributing to a mental health crisis among teenagers, The New York Times reported.

Political Science professor and Director of the Latin American and Latinx Studies Program Tulia Falleti, who has two children in sixth and eighth grade at the Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, acknowledged that the Philadelphia School District lacks many resources, and that the district struggled with environmental issues and building infrastructure prior to the pandemic as well. 

Credit: Max Mester

Julia R. Masterman High School students gather in a tightly-packed classroom prior to the pandemic.

However, Falleti believes the district should seek options that allow students to return to the classroom, even with pre-existing issues.

“The fact that we cannot have a perfect return to school should not prevent us from having a workable return to school,” Falleti said.

Although Critical Writing Program lecturer Andrew Starner's child is in kindergarten at the Albert M. Greenfield School, he is not currently eligible for in-person learning as he did not opt in for in-person learning last fall. But Starner added that he is not in a hurry for his child to return to in-person learning due to classroom limitations required by safety measures. A classroom environment of separated desks and plexiglass shields is “less than ideal” he said, reasoning that his child would benefit more from online interaction than switching to limited in-person contact in the middle of the semester. 

Starner knows firsthand the challenges that accompany online education for young students. The first six weeks of the fall semester were particularly challenging, Starner said, because it was difficult to get his child to focus in front of a computer screen. He added that, similar to how interacting with classmates is an important aspect of his writing seminars, socialization is also important for children in kindergarten.

“The last thing I wanted to do was enforce this inert, passive model of learning,” Starner said about helping his child learn on Zoom. “I’m really impressed by the relationships he appears to be forming with his classmates, but the socialization aspect was really tough for them to establish at the outset.”

Starner also believes that the decision about whether children should return to in-person learning should be left up to teachers, citing his child’s teacher’s reluctance to return to the classroom. 

“I think that teachers know best, and that they need to be empowered to make that decision,” Starner said.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, a union for educators in Philadelphia, told school officials on Jan. 21 that they disagreed with reopening schools, according to WHYY. The PFT indicated in a letter to the district that they do not believe students should return to in-person learning until school staff can be vaccinated.

All district teachers qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine under phase 1B, which Philadelphia entered on Jan. 19. However, the supply of vaccine doses is limited, and it is unknown when many teachers will be able to receive the vaccine, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Even if district teachers are able to receive the vaccine this school year, the earliest that school staff will be fully vaccinated could be May, WHYY reported.

Having educators receiving the vaccine was not a condition for returning to school because receiving the vaccine is not mandatory, Hite said during the Jan. 27 press conference. He also cited the estimated date of May for all school staff to be fully vaccinated as a reason that the district did not wait for teachers to be vaccinated.

"We do think that for the other layers of protection, we can really lower the risk of children getting the virus or transmitting the virus," Hite said.

On Jan. 22, doctors from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia expressed support for district children returning to in-person learning during a discussion hosted by CHOP’s PolicyLab. Professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine Susan Coffin said that school closures are no longer necessary, and that schools can serve as “islands of safety” during high transmission rates, WHYY reported. 

For Classical Studies professor Campbell Grey and his wife Ann Vernon-Grey, the senior associate director for research at the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, transitioning their children to remote learning last spring while working full-time at Penn proved challenging as well. 

With two children in first and seventh grade at The Philadelphia School, a private school that is not within Philadelphia School District, Grey said he needed to adjust balancing workplace commitments, such as class and meetings, with taking care of his youngest child, who had the most difficulty adapting to learning online due to a lack of a structured classroom environment.

This semester, Grey is sending his children back to the classroom because he believes it is best for their social development. His youngest child is completing in-person learning full-time, and his oldest child attends in-person classes two days a week. 

The Philadelphia School also has measures in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including a community compact and conducting many activities outside or socially distanced.

Falleti said she wants her children back in the classroom as soon as possible — especially if teachers are vaccinated.

Credit: Courtesy of Penn Medicine

Pictured: Receiving the shot - Enelida Gomez, a nurse at CHOP and a participant in the Moderna vaccine trial.

Administering the vaccine: Nicole Kordziel, DNP, CRNP; Project Manager, PPRD.

Sitting in background: William Vickroy, RN, BSN; Research Nurse

“I think what [students] are losing by not being in school is much more than the risk they’ll face if they go back to school,” Falleti said, whose children do not qualify for in-person learning due to their grade level.

Falleti, who previously spoke with The Daily Pennsylvanian about the potential difficulties of balancing work and childcare during remote learning, said that there are many students who do not have the resources to participate in online learning and are experiencing mental health issues due to social isolation. Falleti also expressed concern that students in public schools would fall behind those in private schools who have already returned to in-person classes, such as The Philadelphia School.

Péron said she would prefer that her children return to in-person learning when the vaccine is more accessible and when the district can renovate its buildings. If her children are welcomed back into the classroom for a hybrid model, she said she would allow her children to return to school. 

Despite the challenges of childcare, Péron has found unexpected benefits in having her children learn at home. When the school day ends, Péron said that instead of rushing to pick up her children from school or take them to extracurricular activities, they are able to spend time together as a family.

For Starner, most of society would need to be operating normally before he is comfortable with his child returning to the classroom. Starner suggested that the district could also reimagine how school could be conducted, such as holding classes in empty storefronts with open air circulation and rotating teachers.

“I would advocate transforming what we think school should look like, and then I would feel more comfortable,” Starner said. “I just don’t think that’s a possibility at this time.”