Stefanie Marrero badly wants her youngest child inside his first grade classroom at Richmond Elementary in Philadelphia.
With a Friday deadline for Philadelphia School District parents to choose whether they want their prekindergarten through second grade children to return to school buildings Nov. 30, Marrero searched for information about ventilation conditions inside Richmond’s rooms to help make her decision. But none existed.
Marrero finds herself in a situation common to scores of Philadelphia parents and teachers: skeptical of the school system’s track record, lacking full information to make decisions, wary of other schools’ data that shows inadequate ventilation in many schools, and “really troubled” at the prospect of sending children and teachers into the unknown in a pandemic.
“One side of me is saying, ‘Hey, my kid needs the support, the one-on-one,’” said Marrero, also the mother of two third graders at Richmond and a freshman at Kensington CAPA. “But then I’m also saying, ‘I don’t think Philly schools are really safe yet, keep him home.'”
On Thursday, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., for the first time, raised the possibility of delaying the Nov. 30 return date, citing the rising COVID-19 case rates across the city and the state — an admission that had echoes of the summer, when his administration first said all students would return in a hybrid model, then shifted to all virtual after a community outcry. Hite could not say how late a final decision could be made. For now, the district must proceed as if reopening will occur, and as many as 32,000 Philadelphia students will return to school two days a week starting the end of November.
Schools around the region and across the country are wrestling with decisions on when and how to bring children back to classrooms amid COVID-19, promising stepped-up cleaning and sanitization efforts and social distancing measures. They’re also taking a hard look at ventilation systems, which can help mitigate virus spread.
In Philadelphia, those questions are especially fraught, given the school district’s stock of aging buildings and its history of funding problems, delayed maintenance and environmental crises. Some schools lack mechanical ventilation entirely.
Marrero hasn’t made up her mind whether she’ll send her son back to class in person. Ashley Jimenez, whose youngest child is a kindergartner at Lingelbach Elementary in Germantown, has already decided: She’s not sending him. Lingelbach’s ventilation report has been posted, but many rooms cannot safely accommodate any students, and for those that can, the maximum capacity is 7.47, in the school’s gym.
“COVID or no COVID, it’s not safe,” said Jimenez. She and her husband have joined a group of parents in her son’s class to make the same choice; they figure they have more power if they act as a bloc. If schools or classes fail to draw enough interest in in-person teaching, they could remain virtual, which the Jimenezes feel would be safer and offer more consistency and academic benefit.
The district has promised to release full environmental data, including ventilation reports, for all of its 200-plus schools. To date, 79 have been made available, though many are incomplete. According to them, 41% of all rooms surveyed are unsafe for occupancy, 96% of bathrooms are unsafe for any occupancy and just 26% will be able to accommodate 15 students and one adult, says a coalition of parents, staff and community members who analyzed the data.
The reports, which look at outdoor air supply to classrooms, arrive at a safe occupancy number for each room. Some schools have straight zeroes — that is, without fixes, no rooms can be occupied.
Staff who teach prekindergarten through second grade students are expected back in buildings Nov. 9 and it’s not clear whether ventilation information will be available by then. And parents who choose a return to in-person instruction can switch to fully remote at any time, district staff said. (Families who opt for fully virtual cannot switch to in-person until January, though.)
Hite stressed that no one will be sent back into unsafe conditions, and said that if rooms are not adequately ventilated, they will not be used. If health conditions permit, fewer than a third of district students could return to schools, and if rooms they’d usually occupy are not cleared, they will move to empty rooms that are safe.
In conditions where capacity issues mean ventilation or social distancing requirements can’t be safely met, children could end up attending school just one day a week, Hite also said.
But the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said the district has so far failed to answer its basic questions — from the methodology for the ventilation report data to how many windows are sealed shut and what the plan is for winter, given a stated district strategy is using fans in some rooms where ventilation is poor or nonexistent. The PFT and district recently signed a memorandum of understanding outlining certain criteria that must be met for reopening.
“We will not allow people to go into buildings if we are not convinced that they are safe," said Arthur Steinberg, head of the union’s Health and Welfare Fund, which monitors environmental conditions inside school buildings.
Barton Elementary, a K-2 school in Feltonville, has no ventilation system at all; a piece of plywood covers the space where a vent used to be in Liza Dolmetsch’s art room. Dolmetsch describes herself as “pretty intensely worried” at the prospect of returning to that building, despite disliking teaching virtually and longing to get back to the kinds of art media she could use teaching face to face.
In winter, Dolmetsch’s third-floor room is sweltering, so the idea of open windows doesn’t faze her. But what about Barton’s first floor, already uncomfortably cold in winter?
“The nurse’s room is on the first floor, and it’s freezing already, with no windows open,” said Dolmetsch. The autistic support room is nearby, too, with many students who have sensory issues.
When staff learned that Barton had damaged asbestos last year, multiple district officials told them the school was safe for occupancy, despite the environmental conditions and remediation work needed. The next day, the district reversed course, closing the school for multiple days while emergency repairs were conducted.
So now, when the district promises adequate personal protective equipment and classroom conditions, Dolmetsch doesn’t buy it.
“I’ve been in schools for years with no soap in the bathroom,” she said. “Trust has been broken for years, for decades for some people. Systematically, it’s built in that our kids don’t get the things they need. Why would I trust that they’re going to get them now?”