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Philadelphia Students Return To In-Person Learning Monday After Nearly A Year

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - Hundreds of Philadelphia school children are back in classrooms Monday after nearly a year of virtual learning. Julio Ortiz says it's been a rough year of virtual learning for him and his first-grade daughter Juliet.

Juliet is among 60 students who went back to class at Juniata Park Academy on Monday.

"It's been a little rough. I'm glad to see her back at school at least a couple days," Ortiz said.

"We miss them so much and it's so nice to see them in person again. Really looking forward to having them back," Assistant Principal Anthony Guidice said.


Students are divided into two groups per class -- group A learns in-person Monday and Tuesday, while group B logs on virtually. They swap Thursday and Friday.

On Wednesday, the schools close for deep cleaning. Parents could opt-in to hybrid learning or stay 100% virtual.

"Teachers now have to teach in-person and virtual students at the same time. That's kind of double the workload," William McKinley Elementary teacher Bailey Stauffer said.

Students in 53 schools returned to class Monday. The school district says each week more students will return. Fifth-grader Zohaib Khan is still learning remotely but his younger brothers Saibais and Shoaib are back in school.

"I miss school. At home, you can't move our bodies and we can't do gym," Zohaib said.

Teachers fought hard to get vaccinated before returning to classrooms. In-class learning was to resume last month but opposition over vaccines stalled that.

Despite earlier concerns, school officials say they are convinced they can pull off the rest of the school year safely.

"I'm convinced I can do anything. I work for the Philadelphia School District. This is just a really exciting moment for all of us and we're really happy," Guidice said.

Many teachers have now been vaccinated with the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Also, there are layers of safety protocols in place, from desk shields to social distancing signage and hand sanitizing stations.

"We have two sets of stairs and we labeled one the up and one the down stairs," Julia Ward Howe School teacher leader Kristin Mallon said. "I walked a little girl down to the bathroom, I almost went up the wrong set of steps she said, 'Ms. Mallon, we have to go down the down steps.' They learn quicker than we do I think."

And while they will need to adjust to another new normal, teachers say their commitment to their students remains the same.

"Schools have not been closed, buildings have been closed," Mallon said.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley says his goal all along was to get students back in the classroom.

"I am a pediatrician, it's been very sad to me. This is one piece to get us there which I am so excited to see," Farley said.

Meanwhile, young students also returned to Greenfield Elementary in Center City. While not everyone was there in-person, those who said it felt good to be back.

"We are in a hybrid format. There are still kids at home, so teachers are still teaching in the classroom as well as students at home as well," Greenfield Elementary Principal Dan Lazar said.

While the new safety protocols may take some getting used to for first-grader Riya, she's glad to be back.

"It was hard to not see my friends," she said.

Riya's dad agrees.

"Kids aren't meant to be seeing each other on computers all day long. They're meant to see and hear all of that nonverbal learning is super important at this age," he said.

Principal Lazar says all of his teachers have been offered or have a scheduled vaccine appointment through the city's partnership with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The district hopes to open an additional 50 schools per week until all 149 are opened. See the list of schools, here.

CBS3's Howard Monroe and Alicia Roberts contributed to this report.

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