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‘Our kids deserve nothing less’: A few wishes for Philadelphia education in 2021

COVID-19 vaccine, ventilation, and a safe return to school top concerns

Jim Kenney and a student having a conversation in a classroom.
Mayor Jim Kenney talks with a student at Constitution High School.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

Like those everywhere, students in Philadelphia have been hit hard this year. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the nature of their education.

Deprived of attending school in person, they missed the closeness of their friends and peers, not to mention comforting chats with teachers and mentors. Keeping them safe from the virus has endangered their safety in other ways, challenging their mental health and their academic growth.

The pandemic has laid bare long troubling and intractable inequities – and deepened resolve to tackle them. Educators and political leaders embraced the talk of social justice and racial equity. The killings of George Floyd and then Walter Wallace in Philadelphia at the hands of police roiled the city and deepened the resolve to take action.

The school district tried twice to open schools on a hybrid schedule, only to abandon the effort. It is spending millions in an effort to upgrade the ventilation and rid aging school buildings of toxins. Leaders are determined to open them to some students in some way before the end of this school year. How and when this will happen is still uncertain, and building public trust in the buildings’ safety will be a tall order.

In this holiday season, it is a lot to wish for. Chalkbeat reached out to education, community and government leaders to get their views on what’s needed in 2021. Here’s what they had to say:

Jim Kenney
Mayor

“In 2021, I hope all of our students, teachers, administrators and support staff can safely return to school buildings. I also hope our kids can participate in the sports, out-of-school time, and career readiness programs that help them thrive. Finally, I pray that the Commonwealth and federal government step up to adequately fund our schools the way our local government has for the last five years. Our kids deserve nothing less.”

William Hite
Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia

“In 2021, my hope is for the continued support of our students and school communities. District staff, city leaders and the business community have worked so diligently during this pandemic to make sure our students had access to resources to engage in learning, healthy meals and even counseling to deal with the trauma so many have faced.”

William Hite speaking into a microphone.
William Hite speaking into a microphone.
Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

“In the New Year, I hope we all continue to work together to best serve and support children throughout Philadelphia. This is something that is absolutely possible when we keep the health, well being and academic success of our students as our top priorities. My ultimate wish is that we can return to some form of in-person learning, allowing for students and teachers to safely be together in the caring environments that we know our schools provide.”

Jerry Jordan
President of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

“2020 was a year of deep suffering and loss for so many, and as we look towards the future, we would be remiss if we do not recognize and reflect on the underlying causes for such a catastrophic year. From a devastating government response to the deadly pandemic to the ongoing scourge of racism that has wrought such pain on so many, we know that our struggle is not one that will end when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31. But there is reason for hope — with a vaccine being distributed, and with a President-elect deeply committed to public education and addressing systemic racism, brighter days are ahead.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan.
Dale Mezzacappa / The Notebook

“In 2021, we’ll be working towards the resolution of a fair contract for educators; we will continue our ongoing fight for safe and healthy schools; and we will continue to pursue equitable funding for public education. We cannot and will not tolerate conditions in our schools that would never be permitted in wealthier, whiter districts. The COVID pandemic has exacerbated so many of the inequities in our education system, and in 2021 and beyond, we’ll continue to use all of our collective power to fight for a more just educational system and society.”

Robin Cooper
President of Teamsters Local 502/CASA
“As we leave this unprecedented year 2020 behind, we hope that 2021 brings a renewed hope and a timely arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine to all United States citizens, but first and foremost will be made available to the essential workers in our schools. We hope for steady support and resources for our school leaders, the unsung heroes, who often work without adequate resources and are still required to perform as if everything that is needed is right at their fingertips.”

“We hope for transparency as we return to schools with sometimes conflicting reports about air quality. We hope for recognizing that sometimes less is more; less screen time, less students, and less assessment; which in turn, will allow us as a district to heal more.”

Christopher Paslay
Teacher
“I’d like to see a safe return to in-person learning, so our students can keep pace with the surrounding suburban districts who have successfully transitioned back into the classroom. It’s time for the district to roll out its long-awaited hybrid model of in-person learning and start the gradual process of safely returning to some level of academic normalcy.”

Maria Quinones Sanchez
Councilwoman and Chair of Council’s Education Committee
“I am encouraged by the nomination of Dr. Miguel A. Cardona, a teacher and administrator, as Secretary of Education. As a Puerto Rican I am proud of his personal story and hope his perspective will help restore confidence in education stakeholders. I hope the Biden administration will prioritize significant investment in public education in partnership with state and local government.”

“I look forward to discussing the future of education in Philadelphia through a real racial and social justice lens where equity means we provide reparations and a student-weighted formula that works for all children, particularly those most vulnerable.”

Helen Gym
City Councilwoman
“We move into 2021 with the safety, mental health and academic success of a generation of children at stake as we determine what kind of school system we are going to reopen. Long before the pandemic, our neighborhood schools were underfunded, which now manifests in inadequate facilities, ventilation, cleanliness and insufficient staff to reopen. We need to continue increasing our investments in a healthy and equitable school system. The more we invest, the sooner we can safely return kids to their schools and assure that the schools they return to will be stronger learning environments for years to come.”

City Councilwoman Helen Gym.
Greg Windle / The Notebook

“I’m glad to see a longtime public school teacher become Secretary of Education. I hope that he will increase attention to districts in poverty with increased Title I funding, and a commitment to ensure school districts maintain high civil rights standards.”

Deborah Gordon Klehr
Executive Director, Education Law Center
“We’d like to see significant increases in funding and support from Harrisburg for schools. Philadelphia, like rural, urban, and suburban school districts throughout Pennsylvania, is woefully underfunded by the state. Our case challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s inequitable and inadequate school funding system will be going to trial in Commonwealth Court in 2021, and a favorable ruling in the case will be a turning point for the students across our state.”

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