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Philadelphia Superintendent Explains Decision To Delay Reopening Schools Amid COVID-19 Surge

A school bus outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Sylvain Grandadam/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
A school bus outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Sylvain Grandadam/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

With coronavirus cases climbing across the country, school districts are facing the impossible choice of whether to proceed with reopening plans or keep students at home.

In Philadelphia, 10,000 of the city’s youngest students were preparing to return to school on Nov. 30 when superintendent William R. Hite Jr. reversed course this week. Hite says the district makes decisions based on data from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and guidance from the state Department of Education.

The number of confirmed cases per 100,000 people over a seven day period reached 164.7, surpassing the recommended 100, he says. And the rapidly increasing testing positivity rate over seven days reached 9.1% last week, he says.

"We’ve always said from the start that we would make these decisions based on science," he says. "We thought instead of trying to bring young people back after the holiday, we would just put that decision off until those two metrics began to decline."

Prior to the recent decision to delay reopening, two-thirds of parents in the district had already opted to keep their kids at home this fall rather than spend two days in the classroom through a hybrid model, Hite says. The parents who chose the hybrid model wanted their kids to socialize with their classmates and teachers, particularly for preschool and kindergarten students.

Many other districts around the country that reopened found that schools haven’t been a major source of outbreaks in the community. There's a possibility that the decision to delay reopening is too conservative, Hite says, but the district is listening to local recommendations to protect staff and families.

Local institutions support the districts' decisions. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on Thursday recommended closing all schools as soon as next week because of the spike in cases.

"While I think, yes, we understand that many schools have gone back and haven’t seen the level of cases come through or increase," he says, "at the time, we are experiencing higher case counts than we have since the epidemic started."

With students at home, Hite says the district is addressing ventilation and environmental issues within its schools. The average age of buildings in the district is 70 years old, he says.

The district is completing ventilation assessments and making the findings public by school, he says. Materials containing asbestos and lead paint are also being removed.

Philadelphia schools are also measuring whether students at all grade levels are falling behind academically, Hite says, particularly to assess their needs in English and math. But he's more worried about the impacts of isolation, particularly for the district's youngest students.

"We’re hearing from many of our young people how much they miss their peers. They miss the socialization aspects and the communities that are developed when children are in school environments," he says. "And so I do worry with that."

Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.