As we consider how to safely reopen school buildings, it is imperative that our efforts reflect the non-negotiable needs of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren and educators. 

The PFT today released its reopening guidance which is rooted in the need to protect students and staff from this deadly virus. The stakes are too high if we don’t get this right. 

Since the closure of school buildings, PFT members have completed 17,000 surveys regarding remote learning and reopening models. The most favored model for reopening is a hybrid model, where students would come into buildings part time in shifts. However, recent national surges in COVID cases and plateauing local cases, combined with new evidence of childhood infection and airborne spread, certainly call the feasibility of this into question. 

Educators want to be back in buildings doing the job they love — if it is, and remains, safe. Remote learning simply does not meet the needs of many of our students, and is particularly challenging for students with special needs, English learners, and young students. We must do all we can to ensure that vulnerable students receive the services they need to thrive.

But we cannot reopen buildings on a wing and a prayer.

To reopen safely, these are just a few of the critical steps that must take place:

  • Tracking the virus to ensure sufficient decrease in cases in Philadelphia and surrounding counties; reopening efforts will be contingent upon a sustained downward trajectory of local cases;
  • Developing a robust alternative to in-person learning, so if an in-person return is not possible, students and educators will be properly prepared;
  • Implementing a feedback mechanism, such as a hotline, with a guaranteed swift response turnaround time;
  • Implementing a physical distancing model, based upon the recalculation of occupancy capacities for all spaces within a building, using a minimum space value of 44 SF per student;
  • Providing substantial soap and sanitizing supplies and operational sinks to ensure frequent hand washing;
  • Providing personal protective equipment as a last line of defense in helping to mitigate Covid-19 transmission;
  • Implementing a cleaning plan based on filling of existing personnel vacancies, hiring a minimum of 200 additional personnel, and provision of proper cleaning supplies;
  • Establishing accommodations for staff and students with underlying conditions to minimize in-person instruction;
  • Securing additional resources to implement a robust plan; the HEROES Act would bring Pennsylvania more than $3 Billion in education funding). 

The recent reopening rhetoric from Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos is morally bankrupt. The President’s threat to withhold aid to schools if they fail to adopt his all caps reopen-by-Tweet mandate reminds me of a devastating example of the life-threatening consequences of underfunded schools. In a 2013 political temper tantrum, then-Governor Corbett threatened to withhold $45 million dollars from our schools. He only released the funds after Bryant Elementary sixth grader Laporshia Massey died after suffering an asthma attack at school with no nurse present due to Corbett’s budget cuts. When society fails to fund education and to ignore health and safety, we are perpetuating the centuries of racism against Black and Brown people. 

Too often, the safety of our youngsters and educators has been flagrantly disregarded. But our union has fought tirelessly for our children and educators, and that has not changed in the face of a global pandemic. 

Our plan is based on science, and it’s based on an unwavering commitment to our young people and educators. Without implementing these components and others outlined in our plan, we jeopardize the lives of our young people and their educators, and it’s not something that our union will allow.

Jerry Jordan is the President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers