Despite its being the first day of school, there were no students inside Lowell Elementary on Wednesday, and without significant federal help, it will be difficult to safely bring them back this year, local, state and national leaders said outside the redbrick building.
Officials including Mayor Jim Kenney and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten took aim at President Donald Trump and Senate leaders who have failed to pass the Heroes Act, a COVID-19 relief package that would send billions to cities and school systems like Philadelphia’s, which opened, fully virtual, Wednesday.
“This is clearly not a typical first day of school for anyone,” Kenney said. “Under normal circumstances, we’d be in school buildings, greeting students and teachers, we’d be celebrating all the promise a new school year brings. Had the White House led a competent national pandemic response under the direction of medical experts, we might very well be in a different position today. But here we are.”
As classes began for 125,000 kids across the district Wednesday, teachers, students and parents reported some first-day glitches, but enthusiasm at the beginning of the 2020-21 term.
The school system’s server encountered technical difficulties early on, creating barriers to learning for some; district officials said students who lack equipment or internet access — Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. estimated this week that 18,000 students remained unconnected — would be marked as having an excused absence.
Philadelphia schools will remain virtual through mid-November; Hite has said he hopes children can begin returning to buildings, at least part-time, after the first marking period concludes.
The costs of the coronavirus have proven steep for schools: Philadelphia School District officials have said they will spend at least $60 million on COVID-19-related purchases, from masks and desk partitions to extra cleaning staff and hand sanitizer. It is money they cannot afford.
And those costs do not touch the billions it will take for Philadelphia to fix conditions that existed inside city schools prior to the pandemic.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D., Phila.) recalled touring Lowell, at Fifth and Nedro Streets, where he attended elementary school. He was struck by the poor shape the building was in last year: In midwinter, it was so hot on upper floors of the building that teachers and students had to crack open windows to breathe properly, but in the hallways, people were bundled up in coats against the cold. There was mold and parts of the ceiling showed leaks.
“That scares the hell out of me,” said Boyle, the husband of a teacher and father of a first grader. “How on earth in the richest country in the world, in the history of humanity, can we allow this to happen?”
Weingarten, president of the national teachers’ union, underscored the need for federal funds to get children in Philadelphia and elsewhere back to school.
“How are we going to afford all these things when we can’t even get a window open in Lowell Elementary School?” Weingarten said. “When we don’t even have soap in bathrooms?”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan hailed his members, who he said were “currently working harder than ever and doing so under an expired contract.” The PFT’s pact expired Monday; 13,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, secretaries and other school workers authorized him to negotiate for two more weeks before considering other options.
The district has tied any raise for teachers to the PFT’s agreeing to a reopening plan, which Jordan said created “a false dichotomy that defies logic and devalues educators.”
Nevertheless, negotiations were “productive” Tuesday, Jordan said, and both sides would continue to talk Wednesday.
As the dignitaries spoke Wednesday, 5-year-old Zahkir Satchell played on the steps of his new school. Zahkir is a new kindergartner, and his mom, Lexus Rowe, came to Lowell to pick up books for him. Rowe said she had to stay home from work as a certified nursing assistant to take care of Zahkir and his sister, a fifth grader at Grover Washington Middle School.
She was worried about Zahkir’s starting such a crucial year of schooling without ever having set foot in his classroom or met his teacher face-to-face, but was resolved to figure it out.
And as for the little guy?
“I wish I was in school,” Zahkir said.
By the end of the day, teacher Ashante Carr was more exhausted than usual after the first-day crush at Waring Elementary in Spring Garden. Her day was marked by tech hiccups — broken links, Zoom fails, lost Google slides — but full of kids overjoyed to get back to school, even if it wasn’t in person.
“There were lots of ‘hellos’ and ‘I missed yous’ in the chat,’” said Carr. “They were so happy, and their excitement carried me through.”