PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- For the first time in nearly a year, some Philadelphia students will see the inside of a classroom as the district prepares to bring pre-kindergarten through second-grade kids back into schools. Pre-K through second-grade students whose families selected hybrid learning during the selection process in the fall will phase in first, beginning on Monday, Feb. 22.
Staff supporting Pre-K through second-grade students will return to school buildings on Monday, Feb. 8 to prepare.
"Students will attend school in-person two days a week and engage in digital learning remotely three days a week, and will be assigned specific days for both in-person and digital learning," Superintendent Dr. William Hite said.
The school district will safely phase in students with a lengthy list of safety protocols in place including:
- pre-screening protocols
- mandatory mask-wearing
- new classroom and bathroom setups to ensure social distancing
- plexiglass barriers
- enhanced cleaning protocols
- touchless hand sanitizer stations throughout all buildings
- maximum occupancy signs outside each room
- signage to promote social distancing.
The district offered a choice for students to remain 100% digital or to enter a hybrid model in the fall. Officials say more than 9,000 families chose the hybrid model.
"We know that while some students can thrive in a digital learning environment, many do not. Some of our most vulnerable students, including younger learners, are at risk of falling behind," Hite said. "Escalating violence and feelings of isolation are all tragic consequences of the pandemic, further threatening the health and well-being of our young people. Resuming in-person learning opportunities is a crucial step to help restore a much-needed sense of familiarity, community and connectedness for students and families."
The district says families who chose to remain 100% virtual will have the opportunity to opt into a hybrid model at a later date when it is safe to phase in more students. Also, families who originally chose the hybrid model can choose to remain virtual at any time.
"Safety and family choice are our highest priorities as we slowly phase into in-person learning," Hite said. "We have been preparing for this transition since Spring 2020, and take very seriously the responsibility of putting multiple, proven layers of safety in place to safeguard the health and well-being of our students and staff."
The district has been in an all-virtual learning setting since last March.
This third attempt at beginning a hybrid learning model since the pandemic comes with the endorsement of the city's health department.
"We believe it is safe for students to return to school," Gail Carter-Hamilton with the Department of Health said.
"We have an obligation and we must take action now to ensure that our students, especially our most vulnerable ones, have the option to choose if shifting to a mix of in-person and digital learning -- or a hybid model -- will better meet their academic, and social and emotional needs," Hite said.
But before any in-person learning resumes, Jerry Jordan, the president of the teachers' union, says teachers need to be prioritized for the vaccine.
Vaccinations have not been ruled out for teachers just yet and the school district cannot mandate them, but Hite says he's encouraging everyone to get vaccinated to mitigate the spread of the virus.
The union entered into a memorandum of understanding with the city on returning teachers, staff and students to classrooms. It was agreed upon before the vaccine rollout. It includes everyone wearing masks, social distancing, and ventilation in the buildings. While teachers are included in the 1B phase of vaccinations, which the city is now administering, vaccines are in short supply so teachers have been moved down the list. The union says they need to be prioritized before students return.
Meanwhile, the city says students may be losing ground.
"The one thing that I don't think is helpful for any of us is for schools to reopen and then have to close because of an outbreak in a building," Jordan said. "I think it's much smarter for schools to just hold out a little bit longer because we do have a routine even though it may not be the best ideal way of teaching but the staff and the kids are accustomed to the remote instruction at this time."
"The lower grades are the less exposed, and they are also the citizens of our city who are losing the most ground by not be being in school. In earlier years the child's education is some of the most important years and these kids are almost a year behind now where they would be in their matriculation," Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said.
CBS3's Natasha Brown and Howard Monroe contributed to this report.
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