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Mayor, schools chief to take ‘wait and see’ approach in Philadelphia reopening Monday

Split image of William Hite speaking at a microphone on the left and Jim Kenney speaking at a microphone on the right.

Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite, left and Mayor Jim Kenney.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A day after Philadelphia’s teachers started getting vaccinated, Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William Hite said they’re taking a “wait and see” approach to the school district’s third attempt at reopening school buildings.

Hite set a target date of March 1 to welcome back students in prekindergarten to second grade. But the city and the district still are waiting for a decision from a mediator about whether some or all schools are safe for teachers and students to occupy.

“We don’t know what the mediator is going to say yet and if there are potentially schools that are acceptable to both sides we could have children in those schools,” Kenney said during a press conference Tuesday. “We have to attack this the best we can on a day to day basis, based on the information that we have.” 

Dr. Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, said 500 teachers registered this week to get the COVID-19 shot at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, or CHOP. Some teachers also are scheduled to get the shot the week that district schools are expected to reopen, raising questions about whether they will show up to work on Monday.

Hite emphasized that vaccination was never a condition for teachers to return to school. “It is not mandatory,” he said.

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated schools don’t need to wait for staff members to be vaccinated to reopen. According to the CDC, students should return full time where spread is low or moderate, and with regular testing, the center stated schools can open for some students.

In Philadelphia, vaccination hasn’t been the main issue with reopening. Concerns have grown about the quality of the ventilation systems in Philadelphia’s aging school buildings.

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan invoked terms in a memorandum of agreement the district signed last fall that dictated the safety conditions in schools before in-person learning could resume. The agreement called for hiring an independent mediator to determine whether the safety requirements were met, if the two sides were at odds. That mediator, Dr. Peter Orris of Chicago, has yet to make his decision.

“My team is with the mediator as we speak,” Hite said. “We will have to make that decision and we will have to take that one day at a time. Once we get information from the session today we will be making a decision on how we will approach next week.”

During the press conference Tuesday, Kenney and Hite also presented a unified, lighter tone on not disciplining teachers if they do not show up to work Monday. “No one wants to discipline anyone,” Kenney said.

The superintendent said earlier this month that “disciplinary action will be taken” against teachers who don’t return to work in school buildings. His statement was made after Jordan told teachers not to show up to work on Feb. 8 over safety concerns.

Hite didn’t directly say punishment was off the table, but he reiterated the need for teachers to show up to work, saying “that’s what they are hired to do and that’s what we would expect.”

The mayor said focusing on discipline is “not helpful.”

“We are going to get there, and not expecting to discipline anyone,” Kenney said.

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