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‘I would like for them to come back’: Mayor wants Philadelphia teachers to return to schools Monday

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
Emma Lee/WHYY

Mayor Jim Kenney wants teachers to return to their schools Monday as part of the School District of Philadelphia’s effort to reopen schools to some students later this month.

‘I would like for them to come back,” Kenney told Chalkbeat on Saturday at an event at Smith Playground in North Philadelphia. “There have been people like the SEIU workers in schools since March.”

District leaders planned to open campuses to teachers on Monday ahead of about 9,000 students in prekindergarten to second grade returning Feb. 22. But Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan on Friday instructed his members in an email not to show up to school because of concerns about whether the district’s buildings are safe.

About 2,000 PFT members have been told by the district to return to school Monday. In his note, Jordan told teachers to continue to work remotely and “prepare for all eventualities.”

Neither the district or city announced plans for schools or offices to be closed Monday ahead of the anticipated snowstorm this weekend, with the city declaring a snow emergency beginning at 6 a.m. Sunday.

This is the district’s third attempt at reopening its schools. Two previous attempts were called off earlier in the school year, the first because of public outcry and the second because of rising rates of coronavirus in Philadelphia. In response to Jordan’s directive, Superintendent William Hite said Friday that the move was a violation of the union contract and the memorandum of agreement the two sides reached last fall on school safety. Hite has said he will discipline teachers who don’t return, but he hasn’t said how.

Tensions around school reopening are high in numerous school districts nationwide. In Chicago, the nation’s third largest school district, some teachers refused to return to school campuses during the first wave of reopening. The district disciplined about 100 teachers by locking them out of their virtual platforms and email. The two sides are still at an impasse, and the school district announced Friday that it would push its reopening dates for students in kindergarten to eighth grade.

In New York City, many school buildings have reopened to elementary students, but frequent campus shutdowns have left many families and educators frustrated. Middle and high schools remain closed for in-person learning in New York City.

Kenney said he doesn’t know if the PFT’s directive to teachers was influenced by the issues in Chicago and New York.

“Locally our union here was torn between their allegiance to national and their desire to get back to school,” he said.

Both Kenney and Hite have advocated for teachers to get priority for the coronavirus vaccine, though not ahead of other frontline workers. The mayor said Saturday that the city might have an announcement this week about vaccinations for teachers. He said he was “hopeful” about teachers of pre-K to second grade getting priority since they are the first to return to public schools. (Teachers in some private schools have been teaching in person all year.)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t said that teacher vaccination is necessary for a safe return to school. It can be difficult to curb spread of the coronavirus in regions with high positivity rates, but national data indicates that schools aren’t major sources of transmission in earlier grades.

“I can’t give a guarantee because all of this is so fluid when it comes to the availability of vaccines,” Kenney said. “All the health indicators point to the fact that the K through second students is the safest cohort of people and that teachers don’t have to be vaccinated. We would like to get them vaccinated as much as we can.”

In Philadelphia, concerns about ventilation standards in aging public school buildings have been a key factor in the reopening debate. The school district was criticized for installing fans in some rooms to help air circulation, but experts told Chalkbeat it’s a good strategy.

The union called last week 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 were scheduled to meet over the weekend.

Most elementary schools appear to have enough classrooms to hold the number of Pre-K to second grade students who are planning to return, based on the district’s own safety measurements. But there are other issues highlighted in the reports that some teachers and parents say need to be fixed before schools should begin in-person learning.

In some cases, only a few bathrooms are usable, and gyms and cafeterias are not suitable for occupancy, often because they are on a different ventilation system that is either unsafe to restart or not working at all.

“The hard part about this entire thing is that there’s so much variety, so much difference in each school,” said Jeannine Payne, principal of Richard Wright Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

Wright has enough classrooms to accommodate the returning students. But some classrooms are outside-facing and have windows, while others don’t have windows, making it difficult to increase air circulation.

The union has protests planned for Monday morning, with teachers congregating in the parking lots of their schools and district headquarters off North Broad.

Kenney said he thinks progress has been made on ventilation concerns.

“I think the work we have done with asbestos and lead and the University of Pennsylvania putting into the capital needs,” Kenney said. ”I think we are getting there.”

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who was at Smith Playground Saturday to be honored as a North Philadelphia living legend for Black History Month, disagreed.

“It makes no sense to send teachers and young people into environments where we have not gotten the ventilation figured out, where we have not gotten folks vaccinated, it’s not smart,” Kenyatta said. “Everybody wants to reopen schools, I want to reopen schools, but we have to reopen the schools safely. I am for the teachers getting real ventilation, not some fans from the dollar store.”

Kenney said the city needs to get students back in school, in part, because school closures have forced many parents to stay home.

“We need kids back to school and get people back to work, so we can start to feel more normal,” he said. “I’m not criticizing the PFT in Philly — we just need to work together and figure out how we can get it done.”

Dale Mezzacappa contributed to this report.

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