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A careful process meets a rash demand

Pressed to be “fully operational” in September, Philadelphia officials say they’ll ignore Trump and forge ahead with hybrid reopening plan.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Worlds collided this week when Philadelphia School District officials, now deep in the weeds of their own planning process for the fall, suddenly had to confront a new demand from the White House: Reopen or else.

“SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” tweeted President Donald Trump on Monday, adding later: “Virtual Learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning. Not even close!”

The surprise outburst from Trump, accompanied by a threat of financial punishment for those who fail to satisfy him, triggered a flurry of support and criticism nationwide. But in Philadelphia, District officials say they will essentially ignore the White House and forge ahead uninterrupted with their own plans.

“I’m not going to be influenced by somebody making a statement about cutting funding that they don’t even control,” said Superintendent William Hite.

The president justified his demand by claiming without evidence that teachers’ unions seeking political gain are sabotaging state and local decision-making processes.

“The president will always stand up to teachers’ unions who want to keep these schools closed,” said Trump’s spokesperson, Kayleigh McEnany.

But no such union malfeasance has been documented anywhere in the country, and on Thursday, Hite forcefully denied that any such forces are at work in Pennsylvania. Speaking at his weekly news briefing, Hite said he has seen no union interference in Philadelphia’s planning process, only constructive collaboration. He “unequivocally” defended the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ role in the reopening process.

“As educators, they want to see students back in schools, too,” said Hite.

He said the Philadelphia reopening process is being guided by state and local health experts, not politics, and the PFT is being kept in the loop for advice and expertise. He praised the reopening guidance provided by state and local officials, particularly the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

And he expressed frustration with the president’s decision to suddenly leap into a complex planning process with nothing in hand but capricious and uninformed demands.

“There’s a credibility issue there, a lack of understanding of what needs to happen in order to bring children back to school safely,” said Hite. “No one is saying we don’t want children in schools. But we are saying, we don’t want children to come back to schools that are unsafe or unhealthy.”

Hite said that Trump’s sudden open-or-else demand “creates unnecessary confusion for the public when we are working like crazy to come up with these plans – not just here in Philadelphia, but across the country.”

Mayor Kenney called for less sniping from Washington, and more money.

“We don’t need the President to tell us that opening schools is important. We’re well aware of the challenges that school closures create,” said Kenney in a statement. “As we plan for the fall, additional funding and solutions from the federal government will help us develop the best possible reopening plan for Philadelphia schools.”

Among the week’s revelations were that the president doesn’t just want schools open, he wants them to look like they used to. Among the demands from Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were that schools be “fully operational” in September, with minimal remote learning.

“A choice of two days per week in the classroom is not a choice at all,” said DeVos.

But both Hite and the city’s charter community indicated that hybrid models are coming, whether Trump likes it or not.

“We are clear that it is not safe for schools to reopen in the fall at full capacity. We are planning for a ‘blended’ model and will follow all of the Pennsylvania Department of Education and CDC’s guidelines,” said Penny Nixon, superintendent of the Universal Companies network of charter schools.

Getting ready for September will be “a herculean task,” said Nixon. “We are up to the challenge, yet, we need authentic support. We need everyone to understand what it takes to get the job done.”

The Philadelphia School Partnership, the charter sector’s most prominent local supporter, also agreed that hybrids are inevitable, and said it supports the current planning process that puts Pennsylvania’s state health officials in the driver’s seat.

“PSP supports schools reopening in the fall with a Health and Safety Plan in place that aligns to state guidelines,” said the group in a statement. “Additionally, all schools need to be well prepared for delivering virtual instruction – some of the time or, in case of changing health risks, all of the time.”

And the PFT defended its involvement in the planning process, saying that it intends to keep working with state and local officials to shape reopening policy with “the utmost care.”

“To insinuate that we’re ‘fear mongering’ by demanding safe conditions for students and educators? It’s simply reprehensible,” said PFT President Jerry Jordan in a statement.

“We are committed to working with officials at all levels of government to ensure that the process they are utilizing is reflective of what we know schools will need to reopen,” Jordan said. “We will continue to advocate for the voices of our members, students, and community partners to be heard and taken into account throughout this process.”

Problematic details

The president’s cannonball into the planning pool comes at a time when District officials are beginning to grapple with the most devilish of reopening details.

Among the District’s conclusions to date: Eliminating all risk is impossible. In his Thursday briefing, Hite said that the District’s goal is to “ameliorate the spread” of COVID, but that it’s unrealistic to expect zero infections once schools re-open.

“Am I confident that no children will contract the virus? No. I’m not confident of that, but that should not be an expectation,” Hite said. “What we can do is control the numbers of children and staff members’ exposure to the virus.”

And while a final reopening plan has yet to be revealed – Hite has promised one in July – Thursday’s briefing showed the District’s plans continuing to take shape. A hybrid mix of online and in-person scheduling is all but inevitable, said Hite, as is some kind of staggered schedule to help students maintain distance in what are typically crowded buildings.

“We’re going to have to do this in shifts, no question about it,” said Hite.

The year will start with assessments conducted District-wide to measure students’ learning loss – “you can’t miss that many days of school and not be off track,” said Hite – along with “social and emotional” exercises designed “rebuild the community.” Priority for classroom time will be given to “most vulnerable categories” of students, Hite said, including special education students, English learners, and the very young.

But Hite also acknowledged that science is moving quickly, and in many cases, best practices remain unclear. With experts sharing new information almost daily about transmission and risk, Hite said his team is focusing on what’s known to be effective.

“We will be masking, we will be social distancing, we will be sanitizing,” he said. “Those things have been consistent across the reports we have seen.”

And if the District’s general approach is becoming clearer, it’s also clear that behind every broad goal lie countless nuts-and-bolts decisions, any one of which can quickly blossom into a complex issue requiring time, money, and staff attention.

A plan for disinfection

At a Virtual Town Hall on Wednesday, one of a handful hosted by District officials this week, such issues were on full display. District officials shared a detailed new plan for cleaning buildings, including five separate protocols for everything from summer preparation to day-to-day disinfection.

Among the special new rules: “high touch” surfaces like doorknobs and computer keyboards will be cleaned “at least every four hours,” said Alicia Prince, the District’s acting chief of Facilities Management.

Officials said their 900-person cleaning staff could be expanded and stressed that their plans are not yet complete. “We will continue to monitor for best practices,” said Prince.

But teachers and parents at the Town Hall, although quick to thank the District for its work so far, were equally ready to poke holes in its plan. Among their concerns: the availability of hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, the demands on janitorial staff, and the need for a process to hold cleaners accountable.

“I’m still concerned,” said Betsy Connor, a listener on the call. “I would like to know how many more cleaners will be hired, and how we can verify that [they’re doing] a good enough job, up to the standards you’re anticipating.”

High school teacher Charlie McGeehan said, “Even when we are fully staffed, I’ve seen them struggle to clean our whole building. I’m glad to see the District is considering hiring additional cleaning staff. … I’d like to know how many.”

Said teacher Colleen Anderson: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a bathroom that had no toilet paper, no soap,” she said. Stray items can sit on bathroom floors “for months,” she said.

“We had a game of, ‘how long is that going to stay there?’” she joked. “And that was the staff bathrooms! I can only imagine what the student bathrooms are like.”

But more important, the Town Hall underlined that a safe school means much more than clean surfaces. Emerging research continues to reveal the risks of airborne transmission, which are best countered with effective ventilation and air circulation. But making such improvements will be hard in many District classrooms and all but impossible in others, particularly basement classrooms and other improvised spaces used in so many buildings.

“We often work in tiny, unventilated spaces,” said speech therapist Tamara Seppi. “Often the rooms don’t even have numbers, let alone be part of cleaning [routines].”

Hite acknowledged the fundamental problem: COVID cleaning requires not just sanitizer and supplies, but infrastructure upgrades. The District is full of spaces that will need to be either substantially improved or closed, he said.

“Where windows don’t open [or] we have ventilation challenges, we will likely need to take those rooms, maybe those hallways or schools, off-line,” he said. “In many cases, we can open a window, put a fan in or an air conditioner, if the electric voltage is sufficient. But if the window doesn’t open, or there are no windows … then that’s the kind of room that we’re not going to be able to use.”

The ventilation issue is emblematic of the District’s broader COVID challenge, Hite said. “That’s one small example of the hundreds of things we have to analyze and assess in order to decide if we can use a room or not.”

Trump’s possible leverage

The Town Hall sessions make clear that safe schools will be costly – particularly in old, poorly maintained buildings that already suffer from known problems like asbestos and mold. Hite acknowledged that the District needs all the cash it can get.

“Everything is requiring additional moneys now,” he said. The District is lobbying hard for the U.S. Senate to give final approval to the HEROES act, Hite said, which could bring as much as $425 million to the District in “one-time funding … to address some of those facility issues that are associated with old buildings.”

This is where the Trump administration has potential leverage over states and school districts. It can’t stop the flow of federal dollars that Congress has already appropriated to schools, but it can shape the next federal stimulus bill.

“The only leverage he would have, frankly, is to use the [next] relief bill. The question is whether he’s going to use that as the leverage,” said Dan Domenech, head of the D.C.-based School Superintendents Association.

That question remains unanswered. In the four days since the president’s initial all-caps tweet, the Trump administration has been unable to articulate any clear plan for how it plans to “pressure” states and school districts. Initially, Trump and DeVos suggested that the federal government could withhold funds from uncooperative districts, but didn’t say how. Their options are limited: Congress has already allocated this year’s aid, most of which is earmarked for low-income students and other targeted groups. And the overall amount is relatively small.

“I’m just not influenced by someone that says we’re going to cut off funding … that represents only 10 percent of the District’s budget,” said Hite.

Thursday, DeVos suggested that states could be given aid in the form of scholarship vouchers that could be used to pay private school tuition, bypassing school districts like Philadelphia’s altogether.

“We are not suggesting pulling funding from education, but instead allowing families, take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools refuse to open,” said DeVos. “Schools can reopen safely, and they must reopen.”

The president’s position has brought cheers from Republican supporters. Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis’ children are below school age, but he said he wouldn’t hesitate to put them in schools today, citing studies showing that children may not catch or spread the disease as easily as adults.

“If you can do Home Depot, if you can do Walmart … we absolutely can do the schools,” DeSantis said. “I want our kids to minimize this education gap.”

But the Trump approach has been roundly criticized by Democrats and educators.

Domenech said it’s unlikely that the president’s strategy will convince state and local school officials to take chances by rushing students back to class, even if the Trump administration successfully puts some federal dollars on the line. Superintendents remain highly accountable to local voters, Domenech said, and they don’t often see much upside in taking chances.

“It’s like a snow day. A superintendent can insist on opening schools on a snow day, but if just one kid gets hurt or killed on the way to school, that superintendent is not going to have a job for long,” said Domenech.

But some school leaders in Republican-controlled states are feeling the pressure, Domenech added.

“What we hear from superintendents in the red states is still concern that [voters think] this isn’t real,” he said. Many Americans still “think they’ll be fine, but they’re not going to be fine. I’m really concerned about the Southern states.”

And even if the Trump administration succeeds in including some sort of vouchers or scholarships in the next stimulus, it would still face a basic problem: many if not most American parents do not feel safe sending students back to school.

That trend is particularly strong among Black Americans, who, along with Latinos, face a substantially higher risk of getting COVID and suffering its worst effects. A Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted in June found that 54% of American voters are “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable with reopening K-12 schools. Among Black voters, the combined tally was 67 percent.

Such numbers suggest to Domenech that the appeal of the president’s approach is limited, particularly given the experience of the Sun Belt states that rushed to reopen their economies and are now paying the price with soaring infection rates.

“I suspect they’re getting desperate” in the White House, said Domenech. “This little show may help them with their base,” but it won’t broaden the appeal of a President whose approval rate, while still high among Republicans, currently sits at 38% overall in a Gallup poll.

In Philadelphia, educators say they’re well aware of the urgency of reopening school. But they remain equally aware of the risks and the need to mitigate them, and they don’t want to be rushed.

“We all desire for our scholars to return to school; however, we will not jeopardize the staff, scholars, and families’ health and welfare,” said Nixon.

As for Hite, his administration promises a detailed plan of its own, which will include input from this week’s Virtual Town Halls. The president may throw out new demands or even adjust federal guidelines, said Hite, but the District will push past that “unnecessary confusion” and keep working with the experts it trusts.

“The CDC may change their guidance, [but] we’re going to continue with the guidance we’ve received,” said Hite.

And as for the president, a week of controversy was not enough to temper his demands. On Friday morning, Trump doubled down on his demand for a full reopening without online learning and repeated his threat: “Schools must be open in the Fall. If not open, why would the Federal Government give Funding? It won’t!!!”