When Philadelphia schools reopen, students should only physically attend on staggered weeks, most city teachers said in a new survey, and the School District needs to hire hundreds more cleaners to adequately scrub and sanitize buildings during the coronavirus pandemic.
One-third of the 6,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, and other education professionals who responded to the survey by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said public schools should remain fully remote when classes begin in September. But more than half said a hybrid in-person and remote model is likely the best way to balance education with health and safety.
If the hybrid model is implemented, about 53% of those surveyed favored a staggered-weeks scenario, with students in school buildings one week and learning remotely the next, and groups of students alternating. An alternative of staggering by a smaller number of days drew more concerns.
“I agree that this model maintains the highest level of health safety,” one teacher wrote in the survey released Monday. “I also believe it would be the easiest in terms of logistics at the parent and school staff level. I also think it would allow specialists to see all students in person, eliminating the equity issues of other models.”
Another staffer voiced support for staggering by weeks, but said, “I still have concerns with regard to shortages in textbooks and other educational materials to avoid sharing among students.”
The district has not yet responded to the PFT’s survey.
Across the country, school districts are grappling with what learning will look like in the fall. In Fairfax County, Va., a school system of 190,000, the teachers’ union last week said its members rejected the superintendent’s call for parents to choose between either fully virtual school or part-time face-to-face education.
In an earlier survey by the teachers’ union, 71% of Philadelphia educators said they had significant concerns about returning to school before a vaccine is developed. Teachers echoed those concerns in the new survey.
“Any kind of staggering is still going to spread this deadly virus,” one teacher wrote.
“Safety should be the No. 1 concern,” another said “Lives are at stake. What about staff who are immunocompromised? I have autoimmune disease, and the return to school is scary.”
But there was also acknowledgement of the child-care challenges for parents posed by hybrid or fully remote models.
“Could lead to a lot of children being left home alone; even those who are not able to take care of themselves, because parents have to work,” one educator wrote.
The School District has gathered feedback from thousands of teachers, parents, students, and others, and is formulating plans for what school will look like in the fall. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said that he will announce reopening plans by mid-July, and that they could vary by grade level and neighborhood, depending on schools’ individual needs.
School officials have also said provisions will be made for vulnerable staff and students. Hite last week asked principals to come up with proposals for how to reopen their schools. He later said the district will have the final say.
The district also recently received a school cleaning and disinfecting plan from a coalition including the union and elected officials.
Because of the coronavirus, schools shut down March 13 and were never de-cluttered, sanitized, or properly closed for the summer. Analyzing industry standards and pandemic best practices, the coalition concluded that the school system, with its roughly 26 million square feet of space, would need to hire an additional 200 to 500 workers to clean buildings, some during the school day and some in a separate eight-hour shift after students have left buildings. The district’s cleaning techniques, equipment, and materials should also be upgraded, the union said.
Union officials said the district has signaled to them it believes it does not need to add new positions on top of its 900 cleaning and custodial assistant jobs.
“They don’t have enough supplies, they don’t have enough personnel,” said Arthur Steinberg, head of the union’s Health and Welfare Fund. “We know the buildings are filthy to begin with. The membership is rightfully concerned, as am I, that the buildings will not be clean.”
Monica Lewis, a district spokesperson, said the school system is hiring only for existing cleaning vacancies and that it plans to follow federal, state, and city guidance for cleaning protocols.
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Construction projects, as well as asbestos and lead remediation work, are ongoing in several dozen schools across the city.
School employees have long shared concerns that many district buildings lack adequate cleaning supplies, ventilation, functional sinks, and windows that open — all issues that must be addressed for children to return to buildings, officials said.
“You can’t get schools open safely unless you get the cleaning right, unless you get all these issues right,” Steinberg said.