PHILADELPHIA — Thousands of students across the Philadelphia region will return to classes over the next few weeks — some as soon as Monday — beginning a school year that everyone hoped would return to normalcy.
But the delta variant has thrown schools another curveball, with educators scrambling to make plans for social distancing, masking, and quarantining. And it comes as schools will need to pour extra resources into assessing student progress after a year of interrupted learning and ensuring kids' emotional needs are met amid all the upheaval.
"A year like no other, Part II," said Philip Smart, a vice principal at Eastern Regional High School in Camden County. "We're hopeful this year will be more regular than the last. It feels better, but there's a lot of anxiety that lies ahead."
Sara Hogan last attended classes inside Central High in Philadelphia in March 2020, as a freshman. She planned to be out for two weeks.
"Two weeks quickly turned into not going to school for a whole other year," said Hogan, who will start her junior year at Central on Tuesday. Going back "almost seems unreal," she said.
Entering the third school year under the pandemic, Upper Darby School District Superintendent Dan McGarry knows more about what educators will face this year. But he knows he won't be able to control everything.
"We are anticipating, obviously, a roller-coaster ride again," McGarry said. "Hopefully only through the fall."
Some of the variables: A fast-spreading delta variant. The still-unknown arrival of a vaccine for children under 12. Staffing ranks that were already hard to fill holes in — particularly such positions as school bus drivers and other support staff — compounded by potential quarantines or leaves to take care of sick children.
McGarry's district has mapped out a series of "if, then" scenarios for COVID-19 cases that emerge. He imagines that staffing will be his biggest challenge.
Under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that were adopted by the district, if a student is near someone with COVID-19 but both were masked, it's not considered a close contact. If a teacher has a child with COVID-19 but is well enough to work from home, they can virtually instruct their classroom, which will be monitored by an assistant, McGarry said. That may not be popular, but "my focus is on keeping schools open," McGarry said.