Philadelphia schools have had a chaotic, partial return to in-person learning this week amid a surge of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. More than 90 schools shifted to virtual education — with little warning for families, after weeks of concerns raised by students, parents, and school staff.
Throughout the fall, numerous educators and students have attested to the dangerous shortcomings of the School District of Philadelphia’s vague and inconsistent COVID-19 policies. While the district’s ambitious COVID-19 safety plan seems comprehensive on paper, a lack of support from central office administrators renders it impossible to practice in most schools.
More than a dozen schools went without a school nurse last fall, making treatment and testing of symptomatic students, and contact tracing, impossible. Climate staff vacancies make it impossible to ensure students maintain proper masking and socially distance in crowded lunch rooms, and custodial vacancies mean many classrooms do not even have their trash emptied daily, much less have high-touch surfaces disinfected regularly, as the district’s plan lays out.
As if these large-scale shortcomings weren’t enough, many educators have found their attempts to personally practice commonsense COVID safety hindered rather than helped by School District policy. One particularly egregious example of this is the district’s abusive policies around staff attendance.
Since the return to in-person learning in the fall, school staff have contracted COVID-19, and even more have been exposed. Per the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ recent news release, more than 1,100 teachers have reported testing positive during the most recent wave, and thousands more have reported close contact with a COVID-positive individual.
While school staff are allotted a yearly allowance of sick leave and “illness in family days,” School District policy requires administrators to keep a tally of every nonconsecutive day taken — referred to as an “occurrence of absence” or simply “occurrence.” Staff members are subject to disciplinary action after three nonconsecutive uses of their allotted leave in one school year. After nine absences, the School District recommends suspension and possible termination. To be clear, this discipline is not for taking more sick days than allocated by their contract; staff can be suspended or terminated for simply using their allotted time in a way the district does not like. The rationale seems to be that school staff cannot be trusted to use sick time at their discretion.
This policy inconveniences and disrespects teachers who deal with illnesses of any kind, but the pandemic has illustrated that this policy makes our school less safe. Punishing people for using their sick time encourages going to work while sick and contagious, whether with COVID-19, influenza, or the common cold. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has publicly urged students and staff to “[stay] home if you are sick,” yet the occurrence system remains in place to punish staff who follow this advice.
Further, there are deeper questions of equity around this policy. Staff members most adversely affected are those who suffer from chronic illness or disability, care for chronically ill or disabled family members, and parents of young children who need care and supervision when sick (or when their school or day-care facilities close due to COVID-19). The existing system punishes school staff in these challenging situations, and further, insults their professionalism by assuming they cannot be trusted to use their allocated days at their discretion. The district could send a memo tomorrow ending this punitive system, and in doing so would communicate a modicum of trust and respect to a workforce that they desperately need to retain.
As of November, there were nearly 2,000 vacancies in Philly schools. This can only be seen as a reflection of the School District’s leadership. Teacher burnout and staff turnover have been a hallmark of the School District for decades, but its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated this trend of disrespectful treatment to a full-blown staffing crisis. By eliminating the disrespectful occurrence system, the School District would not only make our schools safer but take a step toward rebuilding professional respect, the lack of which robs our schools of hundreds of great educators every year. If district leadership chose to value and respect our educators, our schools would build stability and positive culture, and Philly kids would reap the benefits.
Kristin Luebbert teaches humanities at the U School. Lou Fantini teaches English and history at Franklin Learning Center. Both are the PFT building representatives at their schools.