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Endless Virtual Learning

When will the School District of Philadelphia Return to In-Person Instruction?

empty urban classroom with natural light

On Monday, December 14, 2020, students from the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing arts skipped a full day of virtual classes to protest their remote curriculum, which they believe has been detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing due to the excessive amounts of screen time required each and every day. One teacher lamented that without individualized support and face-to-face time with teachers, many students are “slipping through the cracks” [1]. This protest serves as yet another testament to the mental, emotional, and academic toll that virtual learning can have on children and teenagers.

Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still no concrete plans for a return to in-person instruction for students in the School District of Philadelphia. The District’s plans to offer hybrid instruction for some elementary-school students, a small minority of the total student population, were scuttled in November due to rising cases in the region [1]. Philadelphia students’ best hope for a return classroom instruction is, according to Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, for “some” schools to resume some form of in-person instruction by the end of the school year [2]. With COVID-19 now spiking and at levels far higher than in the summer and fall, there is no telling when such a return might occur, and for how many students.

This begs the question: why was the School District of Philadelphia unable to deliver any form of in-person instruction for its students since March, and why is there still no guidance for when students might return to in-person instruction?

In contrast to Philadelphia, many other school districts in the region delivered hybrid or completely in-person instruction for much of this past fall, including districts in neighboring Bucks and Montgomery Counties. In addition, 95 charter and independent schools within Philadelphia city limits have offered hybrid or full-time instruction during the fall months, and only three of these schools have had confirmed transmission of COVID-19 [3]. Meanwhile in Europe, K-12 schools throughout much of the continent have kept their doors open for much of this year by following strict safety guidelines, with only a small amount of virus transmission [4]. This begs the question: why was the School District of Philadelphia unable to deliver any form of in-person instruction for its students since March, and why is there still no guidance for when students might return to in-person instruction?

dark, empty classroom

One prominent explanation appears to be the community’s understandable distrust in the District’s ability to provide safe learning conditions for students and staff. After the District announced its plans for a hybrid-model during the summer, parents and teachers alike overwhelmingly denounced these plans in a marathon six-hour public hearing held by the school board. These concerns were not without merit; members of the community expressed profound doubt that the District could safely deliver any in-person instruction, pointing to issues including a lack of guaranteed PPE for staff and students, outdated facilities and overfilled classrooms, and the District’s notorious struggle to manage asbestos in school buildings throughout the city [5,6]. The school board listened to these concerns and opted for a fully virtual model to start the 2020-2021 school year.

As with many other large, underfunded urban school districts such as Chicago, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, students in Philadelphia have been deprived in-person pedagogy while many suburban and rural school districts have resumed partial or complete in-person learning, highlighting yet another manifestation of the inequalities in educational opportunity in our country. With the end of the pandemic in sight, our city’s students will eventually return to the classroom. However, this date may still be months away as vaccinations are only just beginning, and it is conceivable that most Philadelphia students will still be learning remotely when the pandemic’s one-year mark rolls around in March. The magnitude of the repercussions of such a long period without face-to-face interaction among students and teachers is yet to be known, but it is time that civic and political leaders advocate for the resources and funding required for the Philadelphia School District to adequately adapt to unforeseen catastrophes such as the coronavirus pandemic and, no less importantly, to regain the community’s very trust in the District itself.


Author: Doug Russ

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any organization with which I am affiliated.


  1. Wolfman-Arent A. Philly cancels plan to return students to classrooms as COVID-19 cases rise. WHYY. Published November 10, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2021.

  2. Wolfman-Arent A. Philly superintendent predicts — with ‘confidence’ — that public schools will reopen this school year. WHYY. Published December 16, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2021.

  3. Hanna M, Graham KA. As COVID-19 cases surge, should schools stay open? Around the Philly region, approaches vary wildly. Published November 19, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2021.

  4. Birnbaum M. Europe's schools still open, still relatively safe, through covid-19 second wave. The Washington Post. Published December 2, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2021.

  5. Wolfman-Arent A, Mezzacappa D. Philly school board punts on reopening plan after backlash during marathon meeting. WHYY. Published July 24, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2021.

  6. Gruenberg M. Philly school board backtracks on reopening plans. People's World. Published August 14, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2021.

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