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School opens in Philadelphia amid ‘Day of Action’

Jerry Jordan speaking at a podium.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan speaks at a “day of action” event on the first day of school.
Dale Mezzacappa/Chalkbeat

On the first day of the school year in Philadelphia, an array of city, state, and teacher union officials excoriated the Senate and President Donald Trump for blocking a House-passed federal rescue plan that would pump billions of federal dollars into education to help districts deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The speakers, including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, were participating in a Nationwide Day of Action for Safe Schools, which included events across the country. They said the failure to pass the HEROES act, which was approved by the Democratic-led House in May, most adversely affects school districts like Philadelphia, where most of the students are Black and brown.

“Let me say unequivocally that... Black children matter, and the reality is that we have gotten a very clear message from our U.S. Senate...that Black lives and Black children’s lives don’t matter,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, director of the faith-based advocacy group POWER.

The HEROES act would pump $58 billion into school districts, with some $2 billion coming to Pennsylvania for K-12 education. The Senate has proposed a smaller aid package with corporate tax breaks and other provisions opposed by Democrats, resulting in a legislative stalemate.

The AFT has estimated that schools across the nation will face an additional $100 billion in new costs this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, for expenses including those related to social distancing requirements, personal protective equipment, upgraded ventilation systems, and more stringent cleaning protocols.

In Philadelphia, the school year started Wednesday with almost all of the 200,000 students in the city’s district and charter schools attending school virtually. The district enrollment is 125,000, and the crush of students and teachers going online Wednesday morning crashed the district’s server.

District spokesperson Monica Lewis said that the problem, which appeared to be resolved by afternoon, was due to overload.

“Everyone needs to be very patient,” Lewis said. “It’s not the ideal way to start the school year off, but it is something we have to do. If people are patient and understanding, we can get through this as best as possible together.”

At the press conference, held in the morning in front of James R. Lowell Elementary School in Olney, Mayor Jim Kenney said it wasn’t a “typical first day of school for anyone.”

“Had the White House led a competent national pandemic response under the direction of medical experts, we might very well be in a different position today. But here we are,” he said.

Lowell dates to 1913; the average age of school buildings in Philadelphia is 75 years, and many are plagued with toxic conditions including loose asbestos, leaky roofs, and lead-tainted water and paint that the district is constantly scrambling to correct. Schools could shift to a hybrid model with some in-person learning as early as November.

“We’re not talking about trying to get 21st century schools here to open non-remotely, we’re talking about freaking soap, and ventilation...this is what we’re down to,” said Weingarten. Every parent and teacher in America “is agonized” over schools now, she added.

City Council member Helen Gym, who taught at Lowell 20 years ago, said the issues go beyond schools to meeting people’s basic needs.

“We’ve got 18,000 students who can’t get online...we’ve got families who are hungry, who are terrified of being evicted...those, too, are school issues, and we cannot forget that,” said Gym.

The district did not have figures on first-day attendance, but there were signs that far more students participated than last spring.

“For us, it was good attendance and good energy,” said Charlie McGeehan, a teacher at the U School, a small high school of a little over 300 students. More than 85 percent logged in, he said, “which is good when we are in person. The kids are buying in and accepting that school is online now.”

Jeff McFarland, principal of Parkway NW, another small high school, reported similarly high attendance, although they had internet bandwidth problems.

“We got all of our families to go to a specific page on the website to get to teachers’ classrooms, and all of a sudden we had a huge bottleneck,” he said.

Despite the problems, McFarland said, “It was awesome. Parents did whatever it took to stay on the line with me. Teachers, God bless them, they’re on edge like everybody and they’re making it work. Students are into it, attendance is strong. This is definitely a sign that they kind of miss school.”

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