If the Philadelphia School District reopens classrooms to most children two days a week in September, it will do so over the objections of many of its principals, teachers, parents, and students.

In no uncertain terms Thursday night, more than 100 members of the public blasted the plan developed by Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., saying it would neither keep children and staff safe nor offer a robust educational experience.

“We should not have to teach students to death,” Robin Cooper, president of the district’s principals union, told the school board in a dramatic virtual meeting held on Zoom. Cooper led dozens of school leaders in an unprecedented move, publicly coming out against a central-administration position.

“Our members are terrified. And so am I,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who said buildings have “perilous issues” around ventilation and who took the district to task for “absurd” provisions for masks and shields for staff.

The eight-plus hour meeting, which began at 4 p.m. and stretched into early Friday morning, was supposed to have resulted in the board voting Hite’s plan up or down. But after hours of hearing from more than 100 people who spoke against Hite’s plan, the superintendent asked for another week to retool. Once those changes are announced, the board will reconvene July 30 to consider a revised health and safety plan to be filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

If unvaccinated students are excluded from school, the board should not be considering any in-person instruction in a pandemic, period, said board member Angela McIver, who was against waiting a week to act. She said the district needs every moment between now and the start of school to plan.

“We did not do a good job of delivering clean, healthy schools before the pandemic,” McIver said. She did not believe the district should be asking parents to trust that they could do so amid COVID-19.

Hours earlier, during the public testimony on Zoom, Stephanie King, whose children attend Kearny Elementary in Northern Liberties, said there were too many questions surrounding the district’s plan, and too few answers about both the proposed hybrid model and the fully virtual option offered to families.

“We don’t want to send them off to die, and we don’t want some knockoff cyber charter,” said King. “Please do the right thing and start everybody online and keep us and our schools alive.”

Even students asked the board to force Hite back to the drawing board or into a fully virtual option, and wondered why system leaders weren’t focused on developing a strong, fully remote school plan for all students.

Hailey Ivory, a 10th grader, said she was “very much scared” about the prospect of returning to school amid COVID-19. “I am concerned that I may spread the virus to my more vulnerable family members.”

A live-stream telecast of the Philadelphia Board of Education meeting on Thursday.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
A live-stream telecast of the Philadelphia Board of Education meeting on Thursday.

And though a 100% remote option was offered to students who want it, if Ivory chooses that, she won’t be able to participate in her biotechnology program.

Kiana Thompson, principal at Academy at Palumbo, suffers from an autoimmune disorder; she nearly died a few years ago.

But even then, “I did not feel the level of fear and anxiety that I feel now” contemplating going back to school under the district’s first reopening proposal, she said.

School board president Joyce Wilkerson acknowledged the first plan’s unpopularity, but said that “for a large number of our students, virtual learning is a bad option” — especially for young children, English-language learners, and children with special needs.

“For this reason, we are focused on understanding what health and safety measures must be in place in order to ensure we can bring students physically to school whenever it is safely possible this year,” Wilkerson said.

Hite said that the district initially hoped to bring younger children back to class five days a week but that it could not afford such a plan. The cost of the plan would mean up to an extra $80 million, money it cannot afford without an infusion of federal funds.

Thomas Farley, Philadelphia’s health commissioner, underscored the city’s position that schools should open; while transmission of the virus is possible, worries about vulnerable students losing out on educational opportunities must also be considered, he said.

“Schools are not hot spots of COVID transmission,” Farley said.

In just one day, Wednesday, the families of 2,000 students indicated they will choose a fully virtual option to minimize coronavirus risk. Eventually, officials said Thursday, they expect 20% of students will opt into the “Digital Academy,” though the possible shift in plans would likely affect those numbers.

Schools with high concentrations of children in online instruction will see losses in resources under his first version of the plan, with teaching and support staff needed for the cohort of fully virtual learners, Hite said.

A number of other districts, most recently Allentown, have decided to start the year fully virtually, but Hite said he would be guided by science and guidance from the city health department and others, not by decisions being made by other school systems.

“Due to the nature of this pandemic, conditions will continue to evolve in Philadelphia and surrounding areas,” Hite said.

The school board could force him to take an in-person opening off the table if members aren’t comfortable with it, the superintendent said.

Hite also said an announcement is forthcoming next week about child-care options for families of essential workers and others who will be in a tight spot with children in school just two days a week. The city, working with child-care providers and others, Hite said, was likely to open up recreation centers, libraries, and other spots with internet access.

It was not immediately clear what the cost of such care would be or how many children could be accommodated.

Under Hite’s first version of the reopening plan, families would have to commit to a fully remote learning option by Aug. 4, the superintendent said, and agree to keep their children enrolled that way at least through January. It was not clear whether those conditions will change given the public outcry and Hite’s decision to go back to the drawing board.