When classes begin for 125,000 Philadelphia School District students on Sept. 2, they will do so virtually.
The school board Thursday night formally blessed Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.’s back-to-school plan, meaning children will be out of classrooms until at least Nov. 17 because of fears of the spread of the coronavirus.
If public health conditions permit, students who choose to return to school will be able to do so when the second marking period begins, in late November. Furthermore, students who want to continue attending virtual classes will have that option.
Hite initially wanted most students back in school for face-to-face instruction two days a week, but that plan was withdrawn after intense pushback from principals, teachers, parents, and others.
The board, in its latest Zoom meeting Thursday night, voted by 7-1 to sign off on the fully virtual plan, but there was less agreement about whether the direction the district was taking was the best course for children.
Board member Maria McColgan expressed deep reservations about vulnerable kids being out of classrooms for so long, and said she wasn’t comfortable with parents being deprived of the choice to send their children to school or keep them at home until health conditions improve.
“The way we’re trying to prevent this is causing more harm than the disease,” said McColgan, a pediatrician. She said schools, particularly primary schools, should be considered as providing essential services and those teachers as essential workers who must show up in person, even during the pandemic.
Others voted in favor of the plan, but with reservations.
President Joyce Wilkerson said that she had “grave concerns” that the district was “abandoning” some children and operating from a position of fear, but that it was clear a return to face-to-face instruction wasn’t possible without staff buy-in.
“Some people are forming pods,” Wilkerson said. “That’s not possible for a lot of our families.”
Board member Julia Danzy decried that “the hysteria that was created has been widely disseminated.”
Angela McIver, the board member who last week spoke out most sharply against the plan to start school this fall with children in the classrooms, said the repudiation of the original plan was “rooted in a deep distrust in the district’s ability to deliver safe, healthy schools.”
She urged Hite to have his staff create a school-by-school tracker so the community can keep tabs on whether buildings are up to snuff.
Many district schools have struggled with inadequate supplies of soap and toilet paper, no hot water, and dangerous environmental conditions, including damaged buildings, asbestos residues, and flaking lead paint. Many buildings are not adequately cleaned. Officials said they would do better going forward.
Ventilation is a perennial issue, with a stock of aging buildings, most of which lack air-conditioning. Hite last night said that 22 district schools have ventilation issues so significant that sections or whole buildings could be taken out of service until the problems can be fixed.
“Working in our building is a challenge even on a good day,” a group of teachers and parents from Chester A. Arthur Elementary said in a letter to the board. “The ventilation in classrooms, the lunchroom and the hallways is horrible especially on warm, hot or humid days; when you add a mask to those conditions there will be an increase in asthma attacks, other respiratory illnesses, additional student, staff absences and deaths.”
When the board considered Hite’s first version of the reopening plan on July 23, more than 100 people testified in an eight-hour marathon. The board limited speakers to 10 Thursday night, but accepted written testimony from dozens of others.
Teachers said they appreciated Hite’s and the board’s listening to their concerns, and said they would continue to push the district if they were pressured to return too soon.
“Remember that parents and families trust us with the safety and care of that which is most precious to them, their children,” said Elana Evans, a teacher at Paul Robeson High School, told the board, speaking on behalf of a number of Robeson faculty members. “We must not forget that. Not one student, staff or family member will be sacrificed for expediency.”
Fourth-grade teacher Lisa Yau, in written comments submitted to the board, said she would die for her students during a school shooting, but would go on strike or lose pay before going back to school now. Her father died of COVID-19 in April, said Yau, who teaches at Francis Scott Key Elementary in South Philadelphia.
“Recently, when I asked my nephew if he wants to go back to school, he said no,” Yau wrote. “I can see fear in his eyes.”
Others were concerned about what happens with the children of essential workers and families who have no good child-care options.
If people can go to bars and the beach, “why shouldn’t school be one of those options?” asked Nicole Hunt, who leads the district’s food service workers union. Many of her members are district parents themselves.