Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Will Philly’s third attempt at school reopening stick? Teachers are wary and parents are split.

If any teacher chooses not to go back over safety concerns, “we support them in making that decision," a member of the teacher's union's Caucus of Working Educators said.

The Philadelphia School District will attempt its third reopening on Feb. 22. Students have been out of school buildings since March.
The Philadelphia School District will attempt its third reopening on Feb. 22. Students have been out of school buildings since March.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

After COVID-19 abruptly ended 120,000 Philadelphia students’ in-person education in March, children were set to return to classrooms in September until community pushback scuttled that attempt.

The next plan had some young people returning in November. But a surge in coronavirus cases kept doors closed.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced Wednesday the district was trying again: Prekindergarten through second-grade students can return to classes two days a week beginning Feb. 22, with staff who work with those children due back Feb. 8.

Will this return plan stick? It’s not clear; the teachers’ union hasn’t signed off, though Mayor Jim Kenney, City Council, and the school board have emphasized their desire to have children back in school as soon as possible.

» READ MORE: Most Philly kids off track on reading; school board grills Hite

For families, it’s complicated.

Bader Lilley’s kids miss their friends, she said.

But even if Lilley’s daughter, an eighth grader at AMY Northwest, and her son, a freshman at Randolph High School, were allowed to go back in February, she’d keep them at home, Lilley said.

“It’s an iffy situation, and I’m not comfortable with that,” said Lilley. “My daughter told me, ‘If they didn’t have toilet paper or hot water for us before COVID, what’s it going to be like now?’”

Schools are safe for young children if precautions are taken, city health officials have said.

But the calculus is different in Philadelphia schools — the huge, complicated system had a spotty track record of keeping schools clean and safe before the pandemic. Some rooms in city schools have no mechanical ventilation, though officials said no room or school will be used unless it’s proven safe for occupancy.

Jerry Jordan, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president, has said he doesn’t yet have confidence that schools are safe for staff and students, and won’t agree to a reopening until he does.

But Jordan won’t say what would happen if such evidence isn’t produced before teachers are due back. Chicago teachers halted a planned reopening in the nation’s third-largest school district with their refusal to return to buildings over safety conditions; a strike is possible.

» READ MORE: ‘You’re already political’: Post Trump, Philly kids talk civics, school reopening and what’s next

Though Jordan and the PFT say it’s too soon to speculate over whether such steps are possible here, Shira Cohen, a member of the Caucus of Working Educators, an activist group within the union, said that if any teacher chooses not to go back over safety concerns, “we support them in making that decision. This is a matter of life and death.”

When parents were given the option to send their prekindergarten through second-grade children back in November, two-thirds said they would keep them at home. (Families who changed their minds and now want to send their children to school cannot do so in February.)

Still, some have waited months for this opportunity.

Johna Little, whose son is a first grader at Shawmont Elementary in Roxborough, is a little nervous about sending her boy back to school; he has asthma, and she worries about his health, particularly with new strains of the virus afoot. But Little trusts the school staff, and ultimately decided to send him.

“I do the best I can, but I’m not a teacher,” said Little. “My son didn’t have a full year of kindergarten in school, and he struggles in certain areas.”

Little’s son needs the social interaction and the academics school provides, she said, and she needs a break. She works the overnight shift, and can now only catch catnaps when her son doesn’t need her help.

“It’s just a lot on parents,” she said.

The frustration for Teresa Ko, mother of twin fourth graders who attend McCall Elementary in Center CIty, is a lack of communication from the school system. Information is vague and not easy to find, she said, and the lack of parental input in decisions is a problem.

“I want to trust that they’re doing the right thing, but it’s all shrouded in mystery,” said Ko. “It’s such a dysfunctional process, and I fear that if we don’t try something now, it’s just going to get more and more delayed. If it’s unsafe, I will take them out, but can we try?”

For J.R. King, father of a kindergartner in Point Breeze, it comes down to a fundamental problem: Why are Philadelphia public school students learning remotely while private and suburban schools are offering in-person classes?

“If schools are an unsafe environment for children or teachers, then the state Health Department needs to shut down all of the schools and day cares,” said King, whose daughter attended Stanton Elementary until the difficulties of remote kindergarten caused him to switch her to private school. “But if they are safe environments — and the CDC says that they are — then we shouldn’t have a situation where kids can only learn in person if their parents can afford to pay for private school or a house in the suburbs.”

Teacher Cheryl McFadden isn’t due back in the first wave. But she teaches English at Randolph, a career and technical high school in Nicetown, a high-priority group for returning to school if the prekindergarten through second-grade reopening goes well.

She’s scared. And incensed that Hite and city health officials have said they know bringing students back will mean cases of COVID-19 coming to schools, despite precautions.

“So we just go to school and hope that we don’t inhale the wrong thing at the wrong time?” asked McFadden. “We’re supposed to be OK with that? Four hundred thousand people have died.”

Kate Sannicks-Lerner, a kindergarten teacher at Julia de Burgos Elementary, opposes what she calls the “wrongheaded” plan to send her and other staff back Feb. 8. Yes, young children, especially vulnerable students, learn best in person. But she didn’t sign up to risk her life for her job, said Sannicks-Lerner, who is 60 with a health condition that puts her in a high-risk group, she said.

“I’m tired of being told that we are suddenly essential workers,” said Sannicks-Lerner. “Why are we now essential when we were never paid nor treated as such before?”