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

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — A day after the Philadelphia School District released its reopening plan, some teachers and public health care workers are speaking out and cautioning about reopening in-person.

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.

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.

“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?”

According to the plan, students will be instructed when they may take “mask breaks” and remove their masks, such as during mealtimes and when outdoors and more than six feet apart from other people. Mask breaks will be 15 minutes maximum.

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 pose 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 didn’t start with all virtual,” said Dr. 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.”

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