John’a Little works overnights, finishing her shift just before 6 a.m.
By 8:05, she’s sitting next to her son, helping him log on to his laptop for first grade at Shawmont Elementary in Roxborough. Samir is bright but needs help staying on track for virtual school, so Little spends her day with him. Little does her best, and catches catnaps when she can, but she’s exhausted all the time, and worried that her boy is missing too much by not being in the same room with his teachers.
Samir is one of 9,000 Philadelphia students scheduled to return to Philadelphia School District schools on March 1, though reopening is up in the air amid a standoff between the district and city teachers, who say schools aren’t yet safe for return.
While parents, educators, union officials, and advocates have been organized, vocal, and clear on their position that schools aren’t ready to reopen, those on the other side say their voices are being drowned out. They point to other schools’ reopening as evidence that it can be done. They say that children are suffering with buildings closed and that the strain of virtual learning on families, especially those of essential workers and those in vulnerable communities, is a problem.
Across the country, parents are generally becoming more comfortable with the idea of their children returning to in-person school; one national poll released last month found that about 46% of all parents were very or somewhat comfortable with their children returning to buildings, an increase from a few months before. Another poll found a plurality of Americans — 47% — said the reopening of schools in their community is happening at just the right pace, with 27% saying it’s not happening quickly enough and 18% too quickly.
But the reopening calculus in urban districts is different; families of color often lack trust in school systems that have failed them for decades, and the Philadelphia School District’s long history of buildings with environmental problems weighs on many parents’ minds as they decide whether to send their children back into classrooms. Like Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles have not opened for a single day of in-person learning since March.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. told City Council on Wednesday that he feels great urgency to return vulnerable students to school as quickly as their parents feel comfortable, both for academic and social-emotional reasons.
“The research shows that children of color have fallen behind the most,” Hite said, adding that COVID-19 losses are “risking their future in the process.”
In Philadelphia, most parents who could choose to return their children to school two days a week opted to keep them at home; just a third of the 32,000 eligible students are slated to return.
Still, Little, who works in quality control, is hopeful she’ll soon be able to drop Samir off at school for his first day at Shawmont since last March, when he was still in kindergarten.
She said school staff have assured her the conditions are right for return, and she hopes her son can make up some of the academic ground she worries he’s lost. There’s also relief that, at least for two days a week, her family can regain a little normalcy.
“Parents are very excited,” said Little. Virtual learning “is a lot on parents.”
Lexi Peskin’s third grader isn’t eligible to return to school yet, but she’s frustrated by pushback around reopening and afraid what it means for her daughter’s prospects of returning to McCall Elementary in Center City.
“I’m getting increasingly worried that we’re never going to be in school,” Peskin said. Her daughter struggled without access to peers, so Peskin enrolled her in a child-care center program that supports elementary kids’ virtual learning, and that has helped, but it’s not the same as traditional school.
“I think my daughter’s teacher is working extremely hard; I don’t think she’s slacking or not taking this seriously,” said Peskin. “I just think the medium doesn’t work. And I think the union knows it doesn’t work.”
School the way it operated pre-COVID is an impossibility, Peskin knows. But suburban and private schools, day cares, and preschools have made it work, and she believes there’s some way to do the same in Philadelphia, if the teachers’ union backs away from its demands, which Peskin believes are vague and prohibitive.
“We need to come up with a solution, and just saying, ‘This other district has more resources’ is not a solution,” said Peskin.
Peskin and others take seriously the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Philadelphia Public Health Department, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and other agencies, all of whom say schools can reopen with COVID-19 protocols in place.
The issue is so polarizing that many parents are afraid to speak out on the issue. Several interviewed by The Inquirer declined to be identified for fear of retribution. The parents generally worried about a narrative that painted pro-school-reopening parents as anti-teacher and the notion that parents who wanted their children back in school just wanted a break from them.
West Philadelphia parent Syrita Powers, mother of three children who attend district schools, signed up to send her youngest back to school as soon as it reopens.
All three of Powers’ girls have special needs, and the pandemic has been especially tough on the family. Powers worries about sending Logan, her second grader, back to Barry Elementary — the girl has autism and is nonverbal and requires assistance on the bus, going to the bathroom, and performing many other tasks.
“But I know that she needs to be in school,” said Powers, whose oldest and youngest attend Barry and whose middle child attends Heston Elementary, also in West Philadelphia. “She lost the skills we worked so hard on. For children with disabilities, all this time away is not good for them.”
Still, Powers is concerned she hasn’t yet received answers to many questions about what school will be like when Logan returns. And she has sympathy for teachers’ safety concerns; the district has a shaky environmental record and is taking heat for ventilation issues, particularly in more than 30 schools that lack mechanical ventilation and will rely on window fans to circulate air.
“They had 11 months to get this together,” Powers said of the district. “Why wasn’t everything taken care of?”
Dave Becker has two children who attend Central High School and as of now have no return date in sight. But Becker is less concerned about his kids’ return, he said, and more alarmed that younger children and vulnerable kids may continue to go without the option to get back into buildings.
“We can’t keep prolonging this,” said Becker. “I think this is our own Flint water crisis developing right here. Teachers are right to want to be in safe schools, but the question is, Is now the right time to be fighting for maintenance and school upkeep in the middle of the pandemic?”