Some Philadelphia School District parents woke up Thursday to news that their children’s schools would open on time, despite the damage wrought by Hurricane Ida.
Staff, who live all over the region, including some in storm-damaged areas, began making their way to buildings. The first district schools open at 7:30 a.m.
But then the school system called a two-hour delay — after 8 a.m., with some children and staff already in buildings.
“Due to storm-related street closures impacting public transportation and roadways across the Philadelphia region, the School District of Philadelphia is implementing a two-hour delay today, Thursday, Sept. 2 for all schools with 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. start times,” a district message read.
Children who were already en route to delayed schools would be monitored by staff already on site, the district said. Many schools ignored the delay and proceeded as normal.
At a city news conference discussing Ida’s impact, Mayor Jim Kenney said the storm lived up to the city’s worst predictions, and urged city residents to stay home if they could.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the decision to keep schools open was made in “an evolving situation” but said “the communication this morning went out later than we would like.”
The district considers itself an essential service, Hite said at the city news conference, and because SEPTA was running and school buses were on the roads, “we thought it important to make sure the schools stayed open.”
Kenney said he did not weigh in on whether to close city schools.
“That’s why we have a school board and a superintendent,” the mayor said. “Hindsight’s always 20/20, but everyone seems to be safe.”
There would be no early dismissals Thursday, but the district announced later in the afternoon that instruction would be all virtual Friday.
State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Phila.) and City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, both district parents, called the school system’s actions a “gross mishandling” and “a failure of leadership,” which requires a culture change and a recalibration of priorities in the district.
“This last-minute decision made by the district is just one example of a pattern of disrespect for our school communities, poor planning, and poor communication with families across the city,” Fiedler and Brooks said in a statement.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said in a statement its officials “vehemently disagree with the district’s call to keep schools open today” and said it shared frustrations about the late delay announcement.
“With unprecedented and extremely dangerous flooding, this was an irresponsible decision,” the PFT said in a statement.
At Martin Luther King High School, some rooms were dark for a time because staff couldn’t make their way into work. Students whose teachers could not make it in congregated in the auditorium.
Teenagers stopped English teacher Stephen Flemming, asking if he had seen their teachers. He was in contact with one colleague who at midmorning was stuck in their car on a flooded road.
Flemming, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia, left early and arrived at school safely, but he’s incredulous that the district didn’t plan for the consequences of Ida.
“We made it through a pandemic, but we couldn’t get this right? I am gobsmacked,” Flemming said.
Two district schools — Dobson Elementary, in Manayunk, and Greenfield Elementary, in Center City, were closed because of power outages.
At Masterman, a school that has drawn attention for parent and teacher alarm over asbestos and other building concerns, the rain caused problems in multiple locations in the building, which is having its roof replaced. Ceiling tiles collapsed in two classrooms, and the basement flooded.
Hite said the situation had been “inspected, resolved. It’s quite frankly why we’re replacing the roof at Masterman.”
Many suburban districts made the decision Wednesday night to close schools Thursday.
In Cheltenham, some classrooms at Cedarbrook Middle School flooded during the worst of the storm, with water shin-deep in four lower-level classrooms. Acting Superintendent Nancy Hacker wasn’t sure she’d be able to get buses out on the roads, with streets around the bus depot flooded.
“We want to ensure the safety of our students, whether they arrive at school by walking or bus, or by their parent drivers, who must navigate flooded or closed streets,” Hacker wrote in an email to parents. “We also want to ensure the safety of our staff, many of whom travel great distances, and who might also be impacted by the storm.”
Hacker, who surveyed Cedarbrook herself Thursday, said the school’s custodial staff got all the water out of the four affected rooms and would work over the next few days to remove and replace wet drywall. Other buildings had minor leaks and water seepage.
“We were very fortunate there wasn’t more damage,” she said in an interview.
In the Neshaminy School District, most students had their first day of school postponed because of Ida’s aftermath. (Students in kindergarten, fifth, and ninth grades started classes Wednesday.)
School buildings seemed to escape the storm relatively unscathed, said Neshaminy spokesperson Chris Stanley, but officials were worried about road conditions.
“We hated to push it off,” Stanley said of the first day of school, “but it would not have worked out well for anybody. We had to give the road crews, the police, everyone their space.”
The Downingtown Area School District, also closed Thursday, is working with Chester County Human Services to support families displaced by the storm and its aftermath. Students who have been impacted by the storm will have access to mental health supports, said Jennifer Shealy, a district spokesperson.
“Our school community excels at coming together with an unmatched ferocity to support those in need,” Shealy said.