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Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite speaks into a microphone.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite (Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY)

Emma Lee / WHYY

District leaders face united opposition to reopening plan

In an unprecedented evening, staff and parents savage the superintendent’s plan.

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

Thursday’s Board of Education meeting featured an unprecedented outpouring of public opposition to the School District of Philadelphia’s reopening plan.

“If we were playing a drinking game where we drank every time someone endorsed the SDP plan, we would all be sober,” tweeted the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools partway through the evening.

The evening featured a total of 153 registered speakers – the largest group by far in recent memory. Testimony began about 6 p.m. and lasted until just before midnight. The diverse group of staff, parents, and advocates was almost entirely unified in its opposition to Superintendent William Hite’s plan.

With a 6-2 vote shortly after midnight, the board approved a motion to recess for one week. At that time, members will vote on a revised plan. Board members Angela McIver and Lee Huang voted against the motion.

The testimony included a remarkable showing from dozens of school administrators, mostly principals. As a rule, this group keeps a low profile, but Thursday the administrators left no doubt as to their staunch opposition to Hite’s plan.

READ: Board of Education punts on reopening plan after backlash during marathon meeting

“Even Trump has finally admitted that the situation will get worse before it gets better,” said Kiana Thompson, principal of the Academy at Palumbo High School. “In Philadelphia, we cannot dine in restaurants, but we’re expecting students to dine in cafeterias with windows that don’t open?”

Board members heard passionate statements from dozens of parents, students, and school staff, along with a handful of union officials and advocates. Collectively, the group skewered Hite’s plan, rejecting its “hybrid” approach, with speakers showing little confidence in the District’s ability to effectively provide safety equipment and consistent cleaning.

“Perilous issues abound regarding ventilation. … The PPE provisions are absurd. To supply employees with one ‘complimentary’ cloth mask per year, with only some teachers receiving face shields and masks, is insulting,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “Our members are terrified. And so am I. These are lives we’re talking about.”

Virtually all speakers called for scotching Hite’s “hybrid” plan, which would provide two days per week of in-person instruction and three days of virtual instruction for most students, as well as a full-time “digital academy” for those who opted out of the hybrid model. Instead, principals and staff said that all schools should move to a fully virtual fall semester, keeping students with familiar teachers and eliminating the need for a separate all-digital option.

The hope is that a fully virtual model to start the school year would protect existing school communities while a more effective overall plan is developed. And although principals and teachers urged the Hite administration to go back to the drawing board, they also remain deeply skeptical of the District’s ability to engage stakeholders.

Rachel Boschen, a 3rd grade teacher at McClure Elementary, was just one of many to assert that the District made no meaningful attempt to work with its unions or communicate with school staff.

“Learning about these plans through media outlets and Facebook is insulting and disrespectful,” Boschen said. “We were not invited to the table.”

Principals speak up

Principals made a rare show of force at Thursday’s forum. Robin Cooper, the leader of the principals’ union, the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), said that her members couldn’t support reopening without a better approach.

“Our position is simple. Not one school should open for in-school instruction until the District has developed a plan” that guarantees safety for students and staff, Cooper said.

As COVID has hit Black, Latinx, and low-income Americans hardest, Philadelphia students deserve the best possible arrangement, Cooper said. “This intersection of race and poverty amongst our students places them and us in a more precarious position than the affluent surrounding districts,” she said. “We should not have to teach students to death.”

Shakae Dupre-Campbell, principal of Middle Years Alternative School (MYA), said COVID’s disruption means her community needs clear answers, now.

“A cyber school commercial comes on TV at least once an hour, because they know parents are looking for safe alternatives,” she said. “My parents are scared of the unknown.”

Dupre-Campbell wants MYA to start running a virtual program that can become a permanent part of its portfolio. Sending some students elsewhere for online classes just weakens her school community, she said.

“Us becoming fully virtual may become the new normal. We need to spend the bulk of the rest of our time getting virtual right,” she said. “Cyber charter schools are waiting to enroll our public school students at alarming rates.”

Toni Damon, principal of Dobbins High School, said she had “serious concerns” about the citywide impact of the District’s plan, which, she said, “highlights the inequities that currently exist.” The “digital academy” model wouldn’t support many of her school’s most valuable programs, Damon said, including its hard-won career academies. Students who choose the digital academy for safety reasons “will have to give up CTE courses,” she said, referring to Career and Technical Education.

Palumbo’s Thompson, who recently battled a serious illness, said that Hite’s plan doesn’t do enough to protect high-risk individuals like her or the many vulnerable relatives who live with students.

“The idea of my organs being under attack again simply because I had to go to work is crippling,” she said. “There’s little consideration for those of us who are high risk and have compromised immune systems.”

Asking school leaders to protect vulnerable staff and students is a disservice to everyone, she said.

“These school plans are too important to put the responsibility on one principal who’s been overwhelmed.”

Thompson urged the board to “examine the risk vs. the reward. … In the long run, we’ll be forgiven for gaps in learning. But we will never be forgiven for the death of even one member of our school community due to the rush to reopen schools.”

Chris Lehmann, head of the Science Leadership Academy, said that his own experience with last year’s asbestos-driven shutdown when SLA moved into the Benjamin Franklin High School building means he now takes safety issues more seriously than ever.

“Even with the best of intentions and a lot of hard work … students and staff did get sick, including my son,” said Lehman. “The trauma is real, profound, and long-lasting, and I do not wish that on anyone.”

Lehmann urged the board to reject Hite’s plan. “I urge you to reconsider the current plan and instead open our schools virtually in September,” he said.

Parents urge District to go virtual

Parents were likewise united, telling the board that as much as they want their children in school, safety remains the first concern.

Many found Hite’s plan deeply unrealistic.

“This whole plan is predicated on the idea that hundreds of thousands of kids will be able to keep masks on for six hours a day,” said Alexandra Fields, a mother of two students at McCall Elementary School. “How is that even possible?”

Fields was one of many infuriated by the District’s proposal of an Aug. 4 deadline to sign up for its all-digital option.

“How can you expect us parents to make a decision about a 100% [online] model and a hybrid model? We want to know who will teach our children in the online model … and we want to know how our entry into the digital academy will affect our home school,” Fields said.

Another parent, Pat Kingsley, said that the District’s risk assessments seemed overly rosy. The highest COVID risks include “indoor activity, close proximity, and prolonged contact, and that is exactly what happens at school,” he said. “Kids in the same classroom, breathing the same air, will infect each other. … One of the doctors suggested that a basement classroom with no vent at all could be safe. That is absurd.”

Stephanie King, a parent at Kearny Elementary, roasted the new online option.

“Respectfully, the digital academy plan is terrible,” she said. “How will you keep the students connected to their school communities? Who will the teachers be? And more importantly, why are you putting parents through this?

“We could have been spending this time improving online instruction and internet access. You are forcing parents into an impossible choice. … We don’t want some knock-off cyber charter. Keep us and our schools alive.”

Sonia Rosen, a District parent and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Education, was one of many parents to point out that the Board of Education was voting virtually on a face-to-face proposal.

“I can’t help but note the hypocrisy here,” she said. “Why are you asking teachers and students to take safety risks that you won’t take?”

Rosen said that the benefits of in-school learning would mostly be undone by the restrictions of COVID: masks, social distancing, and an instructional style in which students sit and teachers lecture.

“This brand of face-to-face learning, where students are constantly being policed … is not the foundation where learning exists,” said Rosen. “And the digital academy will remove children from their school communities.”

The evening featured a number of community advocates, including Devren Washington, who works on digital-access issues with the Movement Alliance Project, formerly the Media Mobilizing Project. The digital academy plan is not a plan at all for those who don’t have high-speed internet, Washington said.

“Without a comprehensive plan that guarantees internet access, this plan will fail,” he said. “This plan glosses over the glaring lack of access.” He said 20,000 city students do not have internet access at home.

Veteran parent activist Cecelia Thompson said that confusion still reigns among parents, as piecemeal information about various District plans trickles out. “Everybody’s scared,” she said. Special education students and students with complex needs “still have not been heard.”

Rotonya Carr, a parent at Penn Alexander Elementary, which has a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, said that even her well-resourced school has chronically fallen short on supplies and cleaning. She challenged the board to imagine what struggling schools will face.

“Would you recommend that your best friend send his or her only child to the least-resourced school in the District? If your answer is no, you shouldn’t approve the safety plan,” said Carr.

And parent Felicia Bryant-Dawson, who has two children at Adaire Elementary School, said the District’s plan was underestimating the sheer level of stress and confusion that in-school instruction could bring.

“As soon as one kid sneezes, there’s going to be a panic,” said Bryant-Dawson.

Teachers: An excess of worry

Teachers likewise battered the plan. “I trust it less every day,” said Charlie McGeehan of the U School.

“Not a single student spoke in favor of it. … This choice system is going to decimate school communities. It’s incredibly frustrating. Starting a whole new school is an absolute disaster,” McGeehan said. “We need to start the year online.”

Alexandrea Henry, a teacher at Meade Elementary, said that wasting time on a complex hybrid model was a mistake.

“Let’s instead invest in high-quality training on teaching and learning virtually. … Let’s follow New York’s model of regional enrichment centers to provide childcare for essential workers,” Henry said. “No person should have to decide if their life or the life of another is worth sacrificing for a quality education.”

Maddie Luebbert, a teacher at the Kensington Health Sciences Academy, said that bringing students into unsafe and chaotic buildings risks exposing them not just to illness, but also to trauma.

“As a child, it often feels impossible to ask for the support you need,” they said. “The fact that we don’t have to do it this way only increases the trauma and violence. … We cannot rush back to school in the service of capitalist greed.”

Other teachers said that spending time trying to make the hybrid model work was an unnecessary distraction.

“We are giving up the opportunity to make remote learning work, as we are dividing our attention,” said Emma Connolly, a teacher at Fell Elementary. “I will spend my precious instructional minutes reminding children to socially distance. The current plan is truly the worst of both worlds.”

Eileen Broderick, a teacher at McClure Elementary, said her experience with the school’s asbestos problems leaves her with little confidence that the District could maintain constant COVID cleaning. At McClure, she said, “getting the most simple supplies seems like a Herculean task. There has never been soap in the students’ bathroom for more than one day. … There were times when we had to borrow toilet paper from neighboring schools.”

Broderick said her building was nowhere near ready for COVID, and neither was the District. “This fall we’ll be running down the block begging for lifesaving PPE,” she said, before challenging the board to imagine themselves in her place. “I ask you, would you put your children in my classroom, where it reaches triple digits with no ventilation? Let’s take the time now to become the leading district for remote learning.”

Added Alexis Zhao, a parent and teacher at Chester Arthur Elementary: “Anyone who believes this plan will be implemented with fidelity is naïve. I seriously wonder if the people who made this plan have actually met a child. Our middle schoolers will scream coronavirus whenever anyone sneezes, and lick their hands and chase people … because they’re kids.”