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‘We are not ready to go into unsafe buildings’: No word from mediator, but Philly teachers will still protest

“Sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do,” Philadelphia teacher Marcena Toney said. “This is bigger than me.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan says a mediator has not weighed in on whether Philadelphia schools are safe to reopen. He has directed his members not to report to buildings Monday.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan says a mediator has not weighed in on whether Philadelphia schools are safe to reopen. He has directed his members not to report to buildings Monday.Read moreSteven M. Falk / File Photograph

Philadelphia School District teacher Marcena Toney hasn’t missed a day of work in years.

But on Monday, Toney won’t step inside J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences in Chestnut Hill, where she teaches an autistic support class. She is one of thousands of teachers who planned to defy Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.’s order to report to buildings for the first time since March.

“We are ready to show up and to go to work, but we are not ready to go into unsafe buildings,” said Toney.

Things were fluid until late Sunday night, when city officials said teachers did not have to work from school buildings because an arbitrator will not rule before Monday morning. The district had previously threatened discipline for those who did not report to work.

Wary of the pandemic, old buildings, and a long history of environmental problems inside city schools, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan had asked members to stay home or teach from parking lots or cars Monday. The protests will still go on despite the city order, PFT officials said.

Jordan on Sunday night called the city’s decision “a huge victory for the health and safety of Philadelphia’s 13,000 educators and the students we serve.”

A spokesperson for the district had no comment.

» READ MORE: Philly teachers union president tells members not to go to school Monday, setting up a showdown

Jordan last week asked a neutral third party to step in to decide whether buildings are safe, an option open to him under a school reopening agreement the PFT signed with the district in October. The mediator, Peter Orris, has worked through the weekend weighing the issues, but has not yet made a decision.

Both sides have submitted documents — including reports on ventilation and building conditions — to Orris, a physician and public health expert based in Chicago, said Jordan, who has not spoken with Orris.

Jordan said he spoke to Hite on Saturday and characterized the conversation as “professional.” The talk did not resolve any issues, Jordan said.

Jordan and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, will crisscross the city Monday, visiting school parking lots and speaking with teachers. Protests are still planned at dozens of schools; teachers presumably won’t be disciplined for them.

“People are really anxious,” Jordan said. “They’re really frightened about going into buildings because of the history of school district maintenance, along with COVID-19. It is life or death.”

District officials, in an email sent to staff Sunday and obtained by The Inquirer, said they were aware of the protests planned.

Officials “have taken extra precautions to ensure safe entry into and exits out of all buildings,” the email read. “School Safety Officers will be at each location, monitoring the activity inside and outside the buildings, and taking actions as needed to protect everyone’s safety.”

For Toney, the decision to stay out of school wasn’t tough.

She’s concerned about ventilation inside Jenks, a 100-year-old school, and other buildings around the city, and scoffs at a district plan to use window fans to improve conditions. So she’s charging her devices and planning to teach from the parking lot and to be available to her students and their parents.

District officials had warned that teachers who do not report to work will be subject to disciplinary action, which could range from docked pay to a warning letter, Jordan said.

“Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do,” Toney said Sunday. “This is bigger than me.”

About 9,000 prekindergarten through second-grade students — fewer than a third of those eligible to return — are due back to classrooms Feb. 22.

Parent Rachel Marcus wants her daughter back in her first-grade classroom at C.W. Henry in Mount Airy, but believes now is not the time to send back staff and children.

“The teachers have done a really tremendous job of supporting our child, our family,” said Marcus, a nurse. “If they don’t think now is the time to go back, I support them. I trust the teachers. Why would we stop trusting the teachers now?”

Marcus is helping organize support for Henry teachers Monday: coffee, places to charge batteries and use a restroom, and people to fix connectivity issues and shovel snow.

“We just want the teacher community to feel held like they have held us,” said Marcus.

On Sunday a group of lawmakers and union chiefs joined the call to slow reopening plans.

The Fund our Facilities Coalition, in a letter to Hite and Mayor Jim Kenney, said they are “deeply troubled by outstanding important concerns about air balancing tests and building readiness.”

» READ MORE: Get Philly’s kids back in classrooms as soon as possible, Kenney and City Council tell School District

Kenney has said he supports teachers and students returning to school as soon as possible.