With 37 students in her windowless classroom, Cheryl McFadden can’t keep kids three feet apart. Her throat aches from trying to project her voice through a mask all day. She’s constantly worried about the what-ifs of teaching in a pandemic, about keeping her students — and herself — safe.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said McFadden, an English teacher at Randolph Technical High School in Philadelphia’s Nicetown section who had hoped to teach for three more years before retiring. “I seriously can’t see myself doing this for another three years. I can’t even see myself doing this for the rest of the year, but I’m going to have to.”
A new school term always brings hiccups. But four weeks in, it feels more like four years to many exhausted Philadelphia School District staff beset not just by the universal concerns accompanying a pandemic, but also by a transportation crisis where some kids never arrive at school; shortages of school nurses, paraprofessionals and other key workers whose usual barrage of duties are overtaken by COVID protocols; and other complications, from figuring out how to get student computers fixed to compensating for curriculum materials that haven’t arrived yet.
At Randolph and other district high schools, for instance, students are still very much adjusting, emotionally and academically, to being back in classrooms after 18 months away. But they must take Keystone Exams — state standardized tests — this week, their first full week at school, after officials pushed the federally mandated exams back last spring.
“Why are we making them jump through hoops? If we really cared about their social and emotional health, we would not be doing this, because they’re not ready,” McFadden said.
Then Monday, more news: Because of COVID-19 cases, about 100 Randolph students would need to quarantine, McFadden said.
“Lord, I’m so tired,” she said. “I take naps now. I never took naps before.” (Other teachers said they now skip evening workouts because they don’t have the energy, can’t keep their eyes open past 10 p.m., or wake up an hour early to get to school to prep classrooms.)
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has spent the school year zigzagging the city talking to staff, and he hears it, too.
“It’s been very hard,” Hite said — COVID-19 protocols, new curriculum, assessments and other curveballs. “You have to think about systems in a very different way now.”
The district is stressing social and emotional learning in the first months of school, and Hite said reestablishing community is the most important thing schools can do. But, the superintendent said, he understands the pressures on educators: “Our people have risen to the occasion, and we have to acknowledge their hard work.”
Being in classrooms with students who were starved for time with their friends and teachers is gratifying on some level, and much of what makes teaching fulfilling was missing when classes were virtual, said Lou Fantini, an English teacher at Franklin Learning Center in the city’s Spring Garden section.
“But that’s been tempered by reservations I have about the long-term feasibility of this, and the extent of the protections that have been put in place for students and staff,” Fantini said. “There’s this uncertainty and background noise that is understanding we’re not doing everything we can; I don’t have a lot of faith that everything’s been organized in the best possible way. It makes the smaller stresses that much worse.”
The pandemic hit all schools hard. But issues are magnified in Philadelphia, where already large class sizes often make social distancing an impossibility and environmental problems inside many district schools still persist.
Fantini, like the teachers union and several members of City Council, laments the lack of asymptomatic COVID-19 testing for district students. He and all district staff are supposed to be tested weekly, but school was closed on Franklin Learning Center’s testing day last week, and there was no makeup. And he worries what will fall by the wayside at a school with no full-time nurse.
It’s been a nightmare, said one district principal.
“The year is weighing on all of us, and our hands are tied behind our backs,” said the principal, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. Between managing transportation issues, shifting to new English and math frameworks, and crises that crop up regularly, their heads are barely above water. “We’re just trying to get schools back into routines, and they shove all this extra stuff down our throats. It’s disorganized, and they’re operating as if we’re not in the middle of a pandemic.”
It feels as if there’s a lack of foresight and planning on the district level, the principal said.
“There’s not a streamlined strategy on how to reopen, and what’s jarring and terrifying to me is the decisions that we make right now could, if we’re not careful, end with a child dying,” said the principal.
Case in point, the principal said: The day after Hurricane Ida, Mayor Jim Kenney told everyone to stay home if at all possible. But the district opened schools on time, then called a two-hour delay after most schools had already started or were about to start. And many teachers couldn’t make it to work because of storm damage at or near their homes.
“There were schools where hundreds of kids were showing up, and teachers weren’t there,” said the principal. So in some cases, staff had to crowd those hundreds of students into an auditorium together, limiting schools’ ability to social distance or contact trace.
Mari Errico teaches in an autistic support classroom at Loesche Elementary in the Northeast. Her class is small, just eight kindergartners, but her kids largely can’t follow COVID-19 protocols. Many weren’t able to attend preschool because of the pandemic, and some have sensory issues.
“They simply can’t maintain three feet of distance, and they can’t keep their masks on,” said Errico. “I’m spending I don’t know how much time just trying not to get COVID.”
Instead of planning lessons on her prep or taking 10 minutes to herself at lunch, Errico is using the supplies she purchased herself — her school has plenty of hand sanitizer, but no cleaning wipes — to scrub tables, supplies, and doorknobs. The district promised stepped-up cleaning protocols but that hasn’t happened in many schools, multiple staff from across the district said in interviews.
“In years past, we’ve been underprovided with the things we need, but this year is different,” she said. “It’s not that I have to go to Walmart and buy pencils. I’m worried now about what if this kid brings home COVID to his grandmother.”
Errico switched district schools this year; she doesn’t yet have a computer, and her students don’t have Chromebooks. (Elementary schools also don’t yet have access to the online adaptive programs they have used in years past to help teachers differentiate instruction in the same class.)
Edwin Minguela, a third-grade teacher and technology coordinator at Longstreth Elementary in Kingsessing, feels like he hasn’t been trained well on the new English curriculum he’s supposed to be teaching, and he doesn’t yet have materials to support it.
But what’s been most wearying is not academics but everything else, Minguela said. His students were first graders when they last sat in a classroom, and they didn’t even get a full year before COVID-19 hit. Much more of his time is spent redirecting children than ever before, and some days, Minguela feels like he’s just telling children on a loop to pull up their masks.
“It’s almost like they forgot how to be in school,” said Minguela. “I thought last year was exhausting, but this year, just trying to keep up with all the protocol, it’s a different kind of exhaustion.”