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Philadelphia's COVID case hikes raise concerns about in-person classes

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Schools across the country are returning from winter break this week just as the number of COVID cases is surging. In Philadelphia today, it's the first day back. And all the key players, from school bus drivers to students, to teachers, have fallen ill from the coronavirus. And that's raised questions about the school district's ability to offer in-person classes. I spoke earlier with WHYY's education reporter Mallory Falk. And I asked her first, what's expected on this first day back?

MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: About a third of the district's schools are starting off the New Year virtually. And that wasn't the initial plan. The district had repeatedly insisted they were fully committed to coming back from winter break in person. They kept saying it's important to keep the doors open and that in-person learning is best for students, with schools serving as a safety net for children. Then last night, the district announced that 81 of its more than 200 schools will be remote through at least Friday because of staffing challenges due to the spike in COVID cases. But the remaining schools are starting back up in-person.

MARTINEZ: So what's the reaction been to that?

FALK: Many parents are frustrated that this call was made at the last minute - the night before school is starting back up. They'd been watching COVID cases surge in Philly and were really concerned about what the first week back would look like. Some have been saying for a while now that a lot of students and teachers might be out. So they feel like this decision could have been made earlier instead of catching families off guard.

MARTINEZ: There are schools in other parts of the country, such as Atlanta and Detroit, that are also going virtual this week due to COVID surge. In Philly, where you are, how widespread are absences there?

FALK: Yeah. Absences are a big concern across the region here. This is being felt in many, many places. One of the largest school districts in Pennsylvania, Central Bucks, postponed the first day of school after break partly because of a winter storm, but partly because there weren't enough staff members. It's back in-person today but said this could be an ongoing issue. And in some districts, this was already being felt before winter break. I talked to a school district outside Philadelphia called Upper Darby that was averaging about 100 teacher absences a day in the weeks leading up to break. And the superintendent there stressed that they were out for legitimate reasons - because they had COVID or were caring for sick family members. And all this is complicated further by the shortage of substitute teachers. There are often just not enough subs to fill classes. And that means healthy teachers are giving up lunch or planning periods to cover classes for their colleagues who are sick.

MARTINEZ: Speaking of teachers, how are they reacting to these developments?

FALK: Like many parents, teachers are also frustrated by the late decision-making. And the head of the teachers' union had been calling for the entire district to go remote for a week to make sure schools had COVID mitigation measures in place. He wanted the district to ensure there were N95 masks for students and staff, and that classrooms had good ventilation. And he wanted a stronger testing program. Last night, the union said the district's plan leaves parents and staff scrambling to make plans.

MARTINEZ: That's WHYY education reporter Mallory Falk. Mallory, thanks.

FALK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND SCIENTISTS' "MAY 6") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Mallory Falk