September 17, 2021

Three schools in Philadelphia temporarily close due to COVID cases

After about two weeks of in-person school, three schools in Philadelphia have temporarily closed because of COVID cases.

Emlen Elementary in Mount Airy closed Monday, as did Pan American Charter School in Fairhill. Lindley Academy, a charter school in Logan, closed Thursday.  James Garrow, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, confirmed all three closures.

The closures are each for two weeks. All of the schools said instruction will continue virtually.

The Philadelphia school district opened its schools on Aug. 31 after more than a year of disrupted schooling during the pandemic. District officials have said it’s important for students to return for in-person learning, though Philadelphia is one of the few large urban districts to have a virtual option available to families. Some charters, including Pan American, opened Aug. 30.

The school district has a variety of COVID mitigation efforts in place, including air purifiers in classrooms and other spaces, social distancing, universal masking, and some testing of symptomatic students and all staff.

The schools guidance from the city health department requires schools to be closed if there are six or more cases within 14 days or “multiple COVID-19 clusters across grades.” A grade is required to quarantine if there are three or more cases in one grade, not concentrated in one classroom.

The Board of Education also voted last month to let Superintendent William Hite negotiate a vaccine mandate. In a letter sent to district employees Monday, Chief Talent Officer Larissa Shambaugh said all employees are required to submit their vaccination status by Sept. 30.

Those who are not vaccinated or are only partially vaccinated by that date will not lose their jobs. But if they need to quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 test or exposure to someone who is positive, they will be unable to use the 10 days of paid leave the district set up last year for that purpose.

And while all staff is tested for COVID once a week, unvaccinated staff must be tested twice a week.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest union, supports the policy, said Hillary Linardopoulos, its spokesperson.

“We hope that as many school staff as possible will continue to get the vaccine, and we hope that the policies incentivize any unvaccinated staff to get vaccinated,” she said in an email.

The district is setting up six vaccine clinics from Thursday to Sept. 28 through the Black Doctors Consortium at Deliverance Evangelistic Church at 20th St. and Lehigh Avenue.

In the letter, Shambough said a review of the district’s testing data found that some employees were not complying with the testing requirements and could be subject to “immediate discipline.” She didn’t specify what type of discipline.

But the teachers union said it was unaware of any noncompliance.

The PFT and the district have disagreed about some aspects of the district’s safety plan.

The union wants the district to conduct screening testing, in which a percentage of students are tested randomly for COVID, to find asymptomatic cases. The district has chosen only to test symptomatic students. Hite said screening testing was too disruptive, and the district is following the guidance from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The city health department is currently not recommending that all students get tested regularly, except athletes and those participating in arts activities, such as band or singing, Garrow said. The district is doing that.

The union also has raised concerns about a lack of testing supplies, inaccuracies in the district’s COVID dashboard — which doesn’t include student testing yet — and nursing vacancies.

According to state data, since Aug. 16, 1,138 children between the ages of 5 and 13 in Philadelphia have tested positive for COVID-19, as well as 388 among infants to 4-year-olds.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said last week the school nurse shortage in district schools was reaching “dangerous” levels.

According to the district’s vacancy list, which is updated daily, there are openings for nurses in 16 district schools and a vacancy for a “floater” nurse who travels among schools to fill in, in cases of absence.

Jordan said seven nurses also were out on sick leave, which left 24 schools affected. Thirteen of those have certified substitute nurses, 11 have no nurse, and two schools are sharing a nurse, he said.

Shakeda Gaines, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Association, said that she doesn’t think the district has a plan to deal with COVID outbreaks and closing schools.

“What does virtual school look like now? Why isn’t last year’s plan being followed? And why don’t parents and guardians know about the plan? Our problem is that it’s not equal at every school,” she said.

Gaines said she believes the lack of regular student testing has resulted in “a lot of hidden COVID cases.”

“That is problematic and that is dangerous. We would also like to know what the policy is when one child from a household with multiple children goes to one school and has COVID?”

Some charter schools have different protocols than the district.

Mastery Schools, which enroll 12,000 students in 18 charter schools in Philadelphia, is not requiring vaccinated staff to be tested, but is testing unvaccinated staff once a week, said Kerry Woodward, Mastery’s Deputy Chief of Institutional Advancement.

Unlike the district, Mastery is testing all students — whose parents agree — and not just those who show symptoms. More than 90% of parents have agreed to the testing, Woodward said.

Laura Clancy, Mastery’s senior advisor for Health and Safety, said that regular COVID testing of all students follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and “can be a strong prevention strategy in K-12 schools” when combined with other measures including vaccination, masking, ventilation and distancing.

But, in schools without routine screening, the CDC does say rapid testing of symptomatic students can help schools figure out who is sick and who was exposed.

Woodward said that, so far, no Mastery schools have closed due to a COVID outbreak. Last spring, Mastery opened schools for a longer time and in more grades than the district and didn’t have to close any schools.

Some parents are concerned that the school district is unprepared for COVID outbreaks.

“What I have experienced in conversations with other parents is that we’re all just holding our breaths waiting for our schools to be the next one,’’ said parent Ashley Jiminez, who has four sons attending different schools — Anne L. Lingelbach Elementary, SLA Middle and The U School. “That’s just kind of the space that parents are living in right now because I know as a parent and as someone who has friends who are parents and all of that, we’ve all received those letters already that say one student has tested positive or two students. The school may not be shut down as of yet, but it’s already inside of these schools, right?”

Parent Saterria Kersey, who is the president of the Home & School Association at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, said the district needs to be more transparent.

“It is no longer time to tiptoe around, it’s time to actually have a plan in action before they send our students into the buildings that are full of mold and asbestos and lead and trash on the outside of them. The district should have been fully prepared and they weren’t,” she said.

Parent Aileen Callaghan, who has a child at Richmond Elementary School, said she has received six letters from the district  between Sept. 2 and Sept. 11 informing her of a “student or staff member” who has tested positive for COVID-19. The district’s dashboard reports one case at Richmond.

“I feel heartbroken. These are sicknesses that are happening in our community that don’t need to happen,” Callaghan said. “I work full time and I really struggled having only one kid home with me during virtual learning.”

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