The Philadelphia school district has pushed back reopening of schools for a third time, with a new target date for early grades set for March 1, Superintendent William Hite announced Wednesday.
The one-week delay for prekindergarten to second grade is the latest twist in the district’s third attempt to reopen school buildings, which have been closed since last March. Hite said he was “deeply disappointed” to make the decision, which was due to the ongoing mediation between the district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
“I believe we all agree on reopening schools,” Hite said. “The dispute has been how can we do that safely and the district needs to address that.”
About 9,000 students were slated to return to classrooms on Feb. 22, but teachers and some parents have been questioning the safety of school buildings for months. Some 2,000 early-grade teachers were supposed to return to classes last week ahead of the reopening, but union President Jerry Jordan called on his members to stay home due to the safety concerns.
In a statement Wednesday, Jordan said the district “made the right decision to delay the reopening of school buildings.”
He said the union’s position — that “we are unable to verify the safety of buildings” — hasn’t changed. “Our goal of returning to school buildings when it is safe to do so also remains unchanged,” the statement said.
The Caucus of Working Educators on Wednesday said the district has to “drastically improve their communication and transparency” along with assessing ventilation and making vaccines available to all staff before buildings open. “We don’t have evidence that these goals can be accomplished by March 1.”
Hite said Wednesday that he believes the buildings are safe, but he said the district is waiting to hear the results of mediation. He also wants teachers to have enough time to prepare their classrooms for students and to learn how to teach in person and virtually at the same time.
Hite initially said teachers who didn’t report would be disciplined. But the district agreed to allow teachers to continue working remotely while the mediator, Dr. Peter Orris, reviewed ventilation reports and other documents tied to building safety.
The option for mediation was laid out in a memorandum of agreement secured by the union in the fall, which outlined the conditions for a safe reopening. Jordan called for mediation amid growing concerns that many buildings lacked adequate ventilation and that other longstanding issues, including asbestos, mold and lead, were still potential dangers in many buildings.
Teachers and parents have ridiculed the district’s purchase of 3,000 fans to improve air flow in classrooms in 32 schools where the aging ventilation systems had been turned off. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said during a visit to Philadelphia earlier this month that she thought the fans were a parody from Saturday Night Live. Experts, however, have said fans could be a good strategy to improve air circulation.
The mediator started working on Feb. 5, but the two sides did not come together until last Wednesday. No timetable has been set for a decision, but as mediation has dragged on, it has seemed increasingly unlikely that students could return as originally planned.
On Wednesday, Hite also outlined a plan for doing rapid COVID-19 testing of students and teachers, saying the district had “ample supplies.” All staff members will be tested weekly and students will be tested randomly, he said.
Many teachers also wanted to be higher on the priority list for vaccinations before being required to return to buildings. Some wanted to be fully vaccinated first. Hite has advocated for teachers to get priority for vaccinations, but he said Wednesday that “it’s never been a priority for vaccines to be a part of the reopening.”
The city and district announced two weeks ago that it had worked out a plan with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to begin vaccinations for school workers starting Feb. 22, both at CHOP and at six school sites around the city. Invitations should go out starting Wednesday from CHOP, including to school staff who have been working in school buildings or will be returning as part of the reopening, Hite said.
Hite estimated that 10,000 school staff would be required to reopen buildings for the early-grade students.
On Wednesday, Dr. David Rubin, the lead of PolicyLAB and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said during a City Council hearing on school reopening that he believes it is safe to reopen schools “based on the science.” He cited falling case rates, the experiences of other schools in the region, and plans to do rapid COVID-19 testing of students and teachers.
Rubin said vaccinations are important, but not a precondition to reopening. Similarly, he said that ventilation improvements were desirable, but not as crucial as primary interventions, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and keeping sick people out of the buildings. Opening as early as next week “can be done safely,” he said.
Hite, who also spoke during the council, said that all sides have the best interests of students at heart. “Let’s work together and let’s all make this happen.”
The city council hearing went on for more than five hours as parents, teachers, principals, and union leaders almost universally blasted the district leadership for its ”dime store fans” and pre-pandemic failure to adequately deal with asbestos and other school hazards. The principals pointed out that each school is in vastly different condition. “Before moving to a safe opening, we need clear, concise, transparent communication regarding each school’s status,” said Lauren Overton, principal of the Penn-Alexander Elementary School in University City.
A handful of parents, however, said that continued closure is further hurting the most vulnerable students. “Is it safe not to return?” asked parent Jen Leaman. “The educational losses over the last 11 months are monumental.”
The drama in Philadelphia comes as some school districts across the country grapple with reopening.
Philadelphia’s saga has been marked by strong distrust between the administration and the union, and the administration and the public. In a virtual rally on Monday, students, teachers and activists demanded a stronger voice in reopening plans and said they had been shut out of the process.
“We need proper ventilation, not crappy fans,” said Billy Seng, a sophomore at the Academy at Palumbo and a member of the advocacy group Viet Lead. “Our buildings have crumbling ceilings, lead and asbestos. We had that before COVID...we will continue fighting for a truly safe reopening.”
Shakeda Gaines, president of the Home and School Council, said that there has been “disrespect” coming from the district. “They’re trying to open schools even when we got together as a collective and said no,” she said. “We’re saying no to fans, no to lead paint...to asbestos, mold, lead, no to our children dying.”
Acknowledging the trust issues on Wednesday, Hite said part of the problem is when “there are sections or pockets of individuals who want to draw attention to something that is wrong and then apply that to all of the 227 buildings.”
“All we can do is to continue what we’ve done and that is to communicate,” he said.
National and local health experts have said ventilation is but one strategy among many to mitigate the spread of the virus. But the city’s activists jumped on the issue to draw more attention to the overall disrepair of many of the district’s buildings, which have an average age of 75 years.
The district’s own studies have shown that it needs $4.5 billion to fully upgrade schools.
The district has produced hundreds of “air balancing reports” in its classrooms and released other information on building conditions. But the critics were not mollified.
“We can’t verify the results,” said Art Steinberg, head of the PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund and president of the statewide federation, in an interview during an anti-reopening rally on Feb. 8. “We do not have any trust in the information. We’ve asked for data backing it up...they’ve refused to give it to us.”
Hite disputes that the union has been denied information, saying that officials have met regularly with union leaders.
From the start, Philadelphia’s health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley has said it was safe to reopen schools. More than 100 private schools have been open to varying degrees since March, with little evidence that they accelerated the spread of COVID-19 in the communities, he said.
Many parents desperately want their children back in school, but fear for their safety.
Jasmine Ellis, whose son attends Grover Washington Middle School, said their school is in a relatively new building, but has had problems with mold in its auditorium. She said the building wasn’t safe before the pandemic.
At the same time, her son, who has special needs and a heart condition, “hates every second” of remote schooling. “Learning at home is horrible for us,” she said.
A former school district employee who worked as an aide in several schools, Ellis feels that the district has long neglected building maintenance.
“They have to go in and do what really needs to be done and what they’ve been sweeping under the rug,” she said.