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Superintendent threatens ‘disciplinary action’ if Philadelphia teachers don’t show up to school Monday

Split image of William Hite speaking at a microphone on the left and Jerry Jordan speaking at a microphone on the right.
Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite, left, and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan.
WHYY / The Notebook

Just three days before the school district planned to reopen school buildings, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan instructed his members not to show up to school because of lingering concerns about whether the buildings are safe.

About 2,000 PFT members needed for grades prekindergarten through second grade are due back Monday, with some 9,000 students slated to return Feb. 22. In an email sent Friday, Jordan told teachers to continue to work remotely and “prepare for all eventualities.”

In a letter to principals also sent Friday, Superintendent William Hite promised that “disciplinary action will be taken” against teachers who don’t return to work in school buildings. In a separate public statement, he called the union’s directive “deeply disappointing.”

The union’s edict comes as a setback to the district, which is attempting to reopen for some students after two previous attempts were called off earlier in the school year, one because of public outcry and the other because of increasing rates of coronavirus.

On Wednesday, the union called for a third party to evaluate whether buildings are safe for reopening. A neutral mediator, selected Thursday by the city’s Department of Labor, has started reviewing documents and the two sides will meet over the weekend. Despite that, the union has protests planned for Monday morning, with teachers congregating in parking lots of their schools and district headquarters.

Philadelphia is one of numerous districts across the country where tensions around reopening are bubbling over. In Chicago, the district and teachers union are at an impasse over a planned second phase of its reopening, and a similar battle is brewing in San Francisco.

In the public statement released Friday, Hite called the union’s move a violation of their contract and the memorandum of agreement the two sides reached last fall around school safety. His public statement made no reference to discipline.

“What is more troubling is that this action directly impacts our efforts to support the more than 9,000 Pre-K to second grade families who want their children to return to school buildings for in-person learning,” he said.

Larisa Shambaugh, the district’s head of human resources, sent a letter to teachers warning them they could be disciplined if they don’t show up.

She said the district believes it has met all the terms of the memorandum of agreement made with the union last fall outlining what would be needed for students and staff to return to buildings safely and that she expects staff to report unless they have approved leave or an accommodation.

Jordan urged his members to call Mayor Jim Kenney and city council members to “let them know schools are unsafe to reopen at this time and buildings should remain closed.”

Four city council members and three state legislators also are calling for the school reopening to be delayed, specifically citing concerns about ventilation. The council’s committees on children and youth and education plan to hold a hearing on Feb. 17 to discuss school re-opening and “setting out priorities for the path ahead.”

“We are troubled that for months, we have heard complaints from hundreds of parents, school staff, principals and community members about the lack of communication and clarity regarding air quality standards, testing protocols, vaccination prioritization, improvements in virtual learning, and more,” said the letter from Council members Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, and Derek Green, and state representatives Rick Krajewski, Chris Raab and Liz Fiedler.

In his statement, Hite noted that many staff members — custodial, maintenance, food service and facilities, some administrators and safety officers — have been working in the buildings for months in some cases. “PFT’s suggestion that teachers and other staff should not report to these same buildings to also support the needs of our students and families perpetuates inequities that we find unacceptable,” he said.

In a separate letter to families sent earlier Friday, Hite said that the district has been contacted by “lots” of families who originally asked to remain in virtual classes, but now are interested in the hybrid model that would include some in-person instruction.

But the president of the principals union, Robin Cooper, disputed that, saying that 30% of parents who chose hybrid “have expressed their reluctance” about returning. It’s not clear where she got that figure.

A spokeswoman for the city Department of Labor said Dr. Peter Orris, a medical doctor from the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System, will serve as the neutral mediator. He is “already reviewing documents from both parties and they will meet over the weekend,” Lauren Cox said.

The Caucus of Working Educators, which has challenged Jordan for union leadership, said it planned to urge teachers to conduct virtual classes either in the parking lot of the district’s headquarters at 440 N. Broad Street or in the parking lot of their schools.

The caucus is pushing for teachers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before they return to teach in buildings.

“The roll out of the vaccine has been an embarrassment to our city, and until Mayor Kenney and Dr. Hite can come up with a plan that ensures our safety, we are not going back,” said caucus member Kate Sannicks-Lerner.

Hite has advocated for teachers to get priority for vaccination. In his letter to parents Friday, he said that “once vaccines are available, we will activate school sites across the city so our staff, in phases, can easily and conveniently get vaccinated if they so choose.”

The faculty of one school, Lingelbach Elementary in Mount Airy, is circulating a letter saying “they do not feel comfortable” returning to school Monday, based on the information in the school’s ventilation reports. At Lingelbach, detail in the report shows that the air handler in the gym could not be tested due to asbestos issues, meaning it could not be turned on. The rest of the school uses unit ventilators, and reports for classrooms showed adequate occupancy levels.

Leah Jones Hood, a parent at Lingelbach, said that fewer than 20 students selected hybrid in October, but “less than 10” have confirmed they actually want to come back on Feb. 22. She said most of the concerns were around the need to do more ventilation work and make rooms like the cafeteria and gym usable.

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