Thousands of educators gathered outside closed public school buildings across the city Monday, publicly pushing back against a Philadelphia School District reopening plan they say endangers staff and students.
As they waited for a neutral third party to determine whether the school system has met safety conditions necessary to reopen, school staff waved signs and bundled up against frigid weather, teaching from tents and folding chairs rather than go inside buildings as Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. had instructed.
“We want to work,” said Elanda Tolliver, an educational assistant at Samuel Gompers Elementary in Wynnefield. “But we want to come back safe. That’s all we’re asking.”
Educators cheered news that the city, school system, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have plans to set up vaccination sites for teachers and other school workers inside district buildings by the end of the month, but many teachers said vaccination alone is insufficient without other assurances.
Hite had ordered some teachers back to buildings Monday in advance of a student return scheduled for Feb. 22; Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan urged members not to return.
Hite had threatened discipline for any of the prekindergarten through second grade teachers who did not report to buildings, but the city stepped in late Sunday night, saying teachers did not have to report to work until Peter Orris, a Chicago doctor and public health expert, had ruled.
“As of right now, we are still in ongoing discussions with the parties and are focused on getting kids back into schools as soon as possible,” said city spokesperson Lauren Cox.
Environmental conditions inside Philadelphia’s 200-plus largely old buildings are at issue; ventilation is a particular concern.
Hite on Monday said the reopening plan was the result of 11 months of “careful and science-based preparation by thousands of district staff who have been working tirelessly in our schools to ensure every school has a wide range of safety layers in place as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Health Departments.”
The superintendent has said that nearly a year into the pandemic, it’s crucial to return as many students to classrooms as possible, particularly given the supports schools provide and the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on families of color and those living in poverty.
About 9,000 students, less than 8% of the total district population and just a third of those eligible to come back, have signed up to return later this month for in-school instruction two days a week.
It’s the third reopening attempt for the school system, whose students have been fully remote since March.
Flanked by teachers, politicians, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Jordan stood outside Gompers and blasted what he called Hite’s “half-baked” reopening plan.
Philadelphia teachers, Jordan said, “refuse to risk their lives in order to sit in school buildings that are unsafe. I won’t stand for it.”
A growing chorus of lawmakers have supported teachers’ demands to delay reopening until environmental questions are answered and teachers are vaccinated. But Mayor Jim Kenney has made clear his desire to have teachers back in classrooms as soon as possible.
City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who crisscrossed the city speaking to teachers Monday, said those who call for students to return because other districts have gone back are ignoring the decades-long problems with Philadelphia schools.
“If this was your building and you had to go to work with occupancy levels of 0 or 2, would you go?” said Brooks, the mother and grandmother of district students.
At C.W. Henry in Mount Airy, 10 teachers stationed themselves in front of the building Monday morning and conducted virtual lessons while parents delivered food and signs and offered support.
”Good morning everybody, happy 100th day of school!” said kindergarten teacher Colleen DiMartino, facing a laptop set up on a desk. “If you’re 100 days smarter, put your wiggle worms in the air and wave them like you don’t care,” she said, waving her arms in front of the screen.
DiMartino and Meredith Schecter, a first-grade teacher, explained to their students that they were getting into “good trouble,” a reference to the quote from late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.
”I just don’t know that there was enough data around bathrooms and hallways and really all of the spaces in our schools, to make sure that the ventilation was appropriate,” Schecter said in an interview.
When Kevin Watkins’ middle school social studies students asked him why he was teaching from his phone outside their school, Welsh Elementary in North Philadelphia, he was honest: He was working, but also protesting.
One seventh grader told Watkins she stood with him.
”She said she wants to put posters up all over the neighborhood that say, ‘Safe schools,’ ” said Watkins.
Around Watkins, a dozen colleagues sat in beach chairs, stood huddled under a heat lamp, or sat in cars to keep warm against the winter chill.
School board member Mallory Fix Lopez, who spent time outside Childs Elementary School in South Philadelphia talking to teachers, said she believes teachers should be back inside schools if the terms of the PFT’s reopening agreement have been met, but there is not yet public evidence that’s the case.
“It is still not OK that the public is expected to trust the process without that transparent information,” Fix Lopez said. “I think there have been missteps around communication.”
The district’s history of papering over environmental problems — including lead paint, asbestos, and a disastrous $50 million construction project at Benjamin Franklin High — makes teachers wary of the safety promises, they said.
With a large stock of aging buildings, the district simply doesn’t have the money or time to upgrade to the standards common in better-resourced private and suburban schools, officials have said. Some Philadelphia schools have no mechanical ventilation; the plan there is to open windows and use fans to help circulate air.
Teachers at Richmond Elementary in Port Richmond said some often taught in coats during the winter — pre-pandemic. In the recent past, they’ve coped with damaged asbestos, raw sewage, and a rampant rodent problem. They don’t have confidence in the district.
“I just want the kind of buildings for our city kids that kids in the suburbs have,” said special education teacher Sam McKinlay. “I’ll sit out in the cold forever if I have to.”
The fan plan, in particular, has raised alarm with teachers and parents. District officials have called the fans a “good-faith effort” to ventilate about 1,100 rooms and said room temperatures will be monitored.
Weingarten said when she first saw pictures of the fans, “I thought it was a [Saturday Night Live] parody.”
“It is a mockery, and it is incredibly disrespectful to think that something like this would fly,” Weingarten said.
At E.M. Stanton in the city’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood, Ashlee Graves, a special-education assistant and parent of a sixth grader, said air flow was key for her.
”If we have proper ventilation, I’ll be OK with coming in here without having a vaccine,” said Graves. “But don’t come in and give us fans on a cardboard slat, and talking about, ‘This is what it’s supposed to be.’ These schools — some of them are over 100 years old, even more. You can’t tear them down. So fix them.”