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Day after protests, mayor talks ventilation, vaccination plan for Philadelphia teachers

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney
Emma Lee/WHYY

A day after citywide teacher protests about school reopening, the mayor and health commissioner announced more details about a vaccination plan for educators and promised to bring in outside help to improve ventilation in schools, if necessary.

The vaccinations will be offered starting the week of Feb. 22, at the Roberts Center on the campus of the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, or CHOP, plus six different school-based locations, said Dr. Thomas Farley. Those additional sites have not been determined yet.

The plan requires schools to provide a list of names of their staff to CHOP. The school will then notify their staff about how they can contact the hospital to schedule an appointment. CHOP still is deciding how they will invite child care staff.

Students are expected to return to school buildings the week the vaccination program starts.

Addressing teachers concerns about returning without being vaccinated, Farley said, “I think people can prevent spread in schools if they follow safety precautions. So I don’t think vaccinations are necessary for schools to be open. Teachers should go to school to work to provide the kids with an education. But if we wait until every teacher gets the vaccine then we may miss the entire school year.”

Mayor Jim Kenney said Tuesday that he spoke with the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 about completing work in school buildings, including ventilation upgrades, if a mediator hired to review building safety determines that changes are needed.

“We have spoken with members of the construction trades, especially the sheet metal workers, nationally and locally, and we’re willing to do everything we can to get everybody to a level of comfort,” said Kenney, who provided few details on the proposal.

Last Wednesday, 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. The inspector, Dr. Peter Orris of Chicago, began his work on Friday. Jordan urged members not to show up Monday to begin preparing classrooms, in part, because of concerns about meeting the ventilation requirements in the MOA.

“We have a mediator for a reason. The mediator is working,” Kenney said. “We realized the mediator would not be prepared as this past Monday with the results or a decision, so we decided that it would be better not to force the teachers into the schools until the mediator rules.”

If the mediator decides schools need upgrades before students can return, “we will abide by that and try to get as much work done as possible.”

Asked about the possibility of a strike the mayor said, “I’m not going to respond to Jerry Jordan’s style of leadership. He’s been elected many times to his union and he leads them well, according to the people that matter. We are trying to be friends and deal with everybody on an equal basis.”

Jordan provided a statement after the mayor’s plan for the teachers was unveiled.

“We’re encouraged by the development of a vaccine plan for educators,” Jordan said. “We have been advocating for a swift path to vaccination for school staff, because it’s a critical layer of protection against this deadly virus. When implemented with other mitigation metrics, it will go a very long way in slowing community spread. As we continue to navigate a path to safe reopening of school buildings, this is an encouraging step.”

Kenney also said he didn’t feel like he undercut Superintendent William Hite by telling teachers not to go back Monday. “You’re not going to be able to force people to go to work, especially in this environment. What are we going to do, send the police out and go get them to teach in the classroom?”

Fourteen major nonprofits concerned with children, including Public Citizens for Children and Youth, are urging teachers to go back to school so they can assess the safety situation for themselves and speed up the return of children to classrooms. “This step is essential so that teachers have confidence that they can safely educate their young students,” the letter said. “We urge the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to adopt the same mindset and work with its members to get the schools opened.”

Dale Mezzacappa contributed to the reporting.

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