City educators declined in droves to report to schools for a second day as the Philadelphia School District and its largest union waited for word from a mediator on whether 2,000 teachers can be forced back into buildings.
Philadelphia public schools are scheduled to reopen for prekindergarten through second grades Feb. 22. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. had wanted 2,000 teachers back in buildings Monday, but the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers led a citywide action instead, with thousands teaching from outside buildings or working from home.
The PFT has said it does not believe buildings are safe for re-occupancy.
Hite had threatened discipline for teachers who did not show up to school buildings, but the city intervened late Sunday night, telling teachers they did not have to report to work until a neutral third party, Chicago doctor and public health expert Peter Orris, weighed in on whether the district had met safety standards. That’s expected to happen soon.
City officials announced Tuesday that Philadelphia teachers and school staff can receive vaccinations at school-based clinics beginning Feb. 22. That date is unrelated to school reopening, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said at a news conference.
Farley emphasized a point he’s been making for weeks: He believes Philadelphia schools can reopen.
”I don’t think vaccination is necessary for schools to be open, and I think teachers should go to school to work and provide children an education,” Farley said. “If we wait until every teacher is vaccinated to open up school, get kids back, we may miss the entire school year.”
The mayor said he understood teachers’ concerns and said the city planned to move quickly with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to get them vaccinated and to work with the district to “get buildings to a point where we agree they’re all safe.”
Asked whether he undercut Hite by saying teachers did not have to report to school buildings, Mayor Jim Kenney said: “You’re not going to be able to force people to go to work, especially in this environment. What are we going to do, we’re going to send police out to pick them up and send them back to the classroom? We’re trying to get everybody a level of comfort and not do it in a contentious way.”
District officials told teachers Tuesday that the PFT’s move to have teachers stay home “violates the agreement we reached in good faith” on school reopening.
The district’s academic and human resources chiefs said in an email to teachers they knew “that the vast majority of staff did indeed continue to provide instruction, participate in trainings, and fulfill their duties in support of our students; we all appreciate that we must keep our eye on continuity for our students in this difficult time and that was evident across all of our schools.”
Officials said they hope for a “quick resolution, so that we can move forward with supporting the families who have asked to return to in-person learning.”
Fourteen Philadelphia community organizations Tuesday called on teachers to go back to buildings, saying it was incumbent on them to check out building conditions and make “constructive contributions” to prepare for students’ return.
“This step is essential so that teachers have confidence that they can safely educate their young students. That confidence is best gained by having teachers go to the schools and evaluate the conditions for themselves. We urge the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to adopt the same mind-set and work with its members to get the schools opened,” read a statement from organizations including Public Citizens for Children and Youth, Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence, Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, and Episcopal Community Services.
Jerry Jordan, the PFT president, said in a statement, that the organizations’ sentiments were “woefully misguided.”
“Our members are afraid, and they are right,” Jordan said. “To suggest that they should enter school buildings and ‘evaluate the conditions themselves’ is truly astonishing. My members are not environmental scientists. It’s insulting.”