(Photo by Pavel Danilyuk from Pexels)
Dear CHOP Policy Lab, Philadelphia Board of Education Members, and City, State and Federal Leadership:
I have been in your place. I worked for Philadelphia city government for 6+ years, during which I worked directly with many of you, including CHOP Policy Lab. I returned to the classroom as a middle school teacher after informing policy for 13 years because I want to empower my students, their families and my fellow educators to have a voice in policy decisions.
I am now writing to you as a School District of Philadelphia (SDP) teacher and parent of two young children who are not eligible for vaccination.
First of all, we all want in-person learning. As an educator, I agree that it is best for our students.
I do not believe that guidance from CHOP Policy Lab, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the CDC should be the only health guidance informing the SDP’s decisions on whether or not to operate in-person school or virtually during the current pandemic spike. The SDP needs to also take guidance from pediatricians who have been overwhelmed by COVID. They need to talk to the people who are in hospitals and have seen an increase in COVID hospitalization in children.
Per standard Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protocol, I did ask my four-year old per for his permission to share their COVID status. Fortunately my preschooler gave me the green light to share. Aiden was exposed at preschool on the Thursday before Christmas and showed symptoms on the Monday after Christmas. Aiden tested positive that Tuesday. We have had him quarantined in our home ever since. He has been a champ. He understands the importance of this to protect his 6-month old baby brother who have very little protection except for the potential of my antibodies passed on to him during my pregnancy and through breastfeeding.
We are on day 12 of quarantine — ever quarantine a preschooler for two weeks? — and he is still testing positive through at-home rapid tests. He again tested positive through a PCR test this past Thursday. According to research, he could test positive for months through PCR, and we are waiting for a negative at-home test to protect our infant. Even then, per guidance of our pediatrician’s office, Aiden will have to wear a mask when near his baby brother. He wants to get the vaccine for his 5th birthday in February of this year. What a gift. Perhaps after that, I will forgo the mask rule in our home.
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Pediatricians like ours are seeing these cases each day and have heard many stories like ours. When the nurse returned my call to review questions I had, she told me I was the first person she called out of a list of 10 COVID families at 6pm! Their experience is far more complicated than top-level recommendations given to the SDP.
Thus, it is important to have a diverse team of folks so a decision that really prioritizes safety can be made.
As a science teacher, I believe this Omicron variant is a good sign that we are moving closer to herd immunity. The latest symptoms are mirroring what our body’s immune system does when fighting pathogens. We will be in a better place after February, but it would be considerably easier to get there if we reduced the partisanship associated with the pandemic. We have a shared goal — in-person school — and so we must plan to get there with the input of many diverse perspectives.
As an educator, I feel we need to return to virtual learning for at least this week and potentially for the month of January (as other common winter sicknesses get behind us too). Another symptom of Omicron in young children is croup — the scariest experience of my parenthood was when my four-year old caught that as an infant. A friend of my mine who happens to be a nurse at CHOP helped me stay calm as we rushed to the hospital with that tiny infant of mine. I dread a CROUP/COVID combination in my kids.
In my opinion, this is what I believe is needed before we can return to in-person learning, and the SDP should use the COVID relief funding to provide these mitigation measures to ALL SDP schools (including contracted Opportunity Network schools):
- High-quality K95, KN95, KN94 masks for staff and students: I purchased KN95 masks for myself, my husband and grade partner and KN94 for my son when he returns to preschool. I was going to purchase these high quality masks for my students, but unfortunately I cannot afford it.
- Weekly COVID testing for staff and students: If it weren’t for weekly testing of staff, many asymptomatic positive colleagues (even those vaccinated and boosted) in this Omicron surge would have unintentionally exposed their students and colleagues. From the beginning, only symptomatic students are being tested, but this Omicron variant is presenting itself in asymptomatic individuals. We should provide testing to students who have been exposed regardless of if they are symptomatic/asymptomatic. Many of our schools do not have school nurses- the District needs to partner with an organization that can work with these schools to ensure students get tested. It is difficult to get tested right now and schools should become resources in the community where both students and their families can get tested. I appreciate the mobile testing locations for SDP students and staff but there is a need for many more and school-based sites may make sense, especially for families who can’t travel to sites.
- Guidance around meals in school: Many teachers like myself serve school breakfast in their classrooms. I do this while wearing my KN95 mask, but frankly I am uncomfortable as I am not sure how many of my students will be asymptomatic and maskless during this time. I do not understand why during this surge, the City is mandating restaurants to require vaccination proof for indoor dining, but in schools we are seeing a different set of guidelines.
- COVID supplies in schools: During this surge, I will be instituting my own mitigation strategies in my classroom in addition to our school’s mitigation strategies. This will include me providing hand sanitizer to every student before they enter the classroom. It will also include time in our schedule for desks to be wiped down after each use. There will be no sharing of materials, which will mean me purchasing many pencils. Since we have been in-person I have made weekly purchases of supplies and will continue to do this. However, COVID relief funds should be used for all teachers to be supplied with their own COVID kits, not just at the school level. Each classroom should also be provided with high-quality air purifiers.
- CHOICE for families: My school is one that was virtual two weeks ago and in-person last week. It is unfair to families who are choosing to keep their kids home this week for safety to not have access to instruction. “Quarantine Teachers” are not an option because these families would not be eligible.
- Transparent and informed metrics for school/grade closures and quarantine. I am happy to work with you so we can all get to our desired outcome of in-person learning!
Thank you for your consideration,
Ami Patel Hopkins, M.P.P.
7th Grade SDP Math & Science Educator
An Exhausted Teacher Mom of Two Children not Eligible for the Vaccine-30-
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