For students, parents, and educators, the beginning of any school year brings a renewed energy and optimism. As this school year began, inside our classrooms, Philly educators have seen and heard stories of joy, of learning, of promise. But those stories are juxtaposed against a backdrop of conditions that range from upsetting to dangerous.
Time and again, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the city’s union for educators, has offered recommendations for how the School District can course-correct their pandemic response to keep everyone safer. We have also offered our partnership and expertise around facilities issues.
Perhaps the most visible of these conditions is the ongoing COVID pandemic. Cases among young people are rising “exponentially,” making up a quarter of the nationwide cases. With children under 12 not yet eligible for vaccination, that number will only grow in the absence of appropriate mitigation strategies. As such, mitigation measures like masking, ventilation, and access to hand sanitizer are doubly important. However, a recent survey of more than 4,200 union members indicates that these measures are not firmly in place: Nearly 20% reported a lack of mask compliance; 35% reported lack of sanitizer in common areas; and nearly 10% did not have operational air purifiers in their rooms.
Further, the district has thus far failed to implement one of the most effective measures that will enable us to keep school buildings open: asymptomatic student testing. Philadelphia received $47 million in federal funding to undertake school-based COVID testing, and with Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s new guidance encouraging weekly asymptomatic testing, it is time for the district to heed our calls and utilize a vendor that can swiftly and effectively implement this mitigation strategy.
School staff are navigating more responsibilities than ever. Nurses are juggling untenable workloads — one nurse described, “I feel like I’m drowning without a boat, life preserver, or paddle.” Teachers and support staff, too, are facing mountains of paperwork and the implementation of new programs while managing the return to full in-person learning. School staff are “end-of-year exhausted,” and the resources and interventions so desperately needed appear nowhere in sight.
Look in the music classroom at Frankford High, a space that should be filled with creativity. Instead, many surfaces are covered in mold, a situation made especially perilous by the district’s refusal to let our decades-long director of environmental science in to observe and plan for remediation.
Look at the damaged floor tiles at Baldi Middle School, reported more than a month ago, and the mold growth and damaged pipes submitted this week.
Or the water damage that wreaked havoc on a locker room at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.
Union members have reported problems to our Healthy Schools Tracker App that have been ignored by the district, with some urgent submissions languishing for months or longer. While we have made strides in getting facilities work completed, to have hundreds of unresolved issues is simply unacceptable.
We have offered repeated guidance on the facilities crisis, including recommendations for a course of action and best practices. They have largely gone unheeded.
Look at the unbelievable transportation disaster, with students riding buses for hours, students going missing, and parents shelling out astronomical amounts of money for private transportation.
And pair those images with the state’s refusal to spend more than $7 billion in funding intended to address many of the concerns I’ve just described. Instead, they’ve put the money into the state coffers for a “rainy day.” But while the Republican-controlled legislature’s malfeasance is a disgrace, so too are many of the district’s on-the-ground failures.
Surely, district leadership is not responsible for national nursing or bus driver shortages, nor did it create the facilities crisis. But its lack of planning, ignoring issues, and refusal to implement commonsense interventions have perpetuated the conditions that are creating a perilous atmosphere that feels as if we are approaching a very dangerous precipice.
While we continue to fight for a local, statewide, and national investment in and commitment to public education, we also must hold the district accountable for its role in creating an environment that for too many has extinguished that back-to-school joy and replaced it with trepidation and fear.
Jerry T. Jordan is president of the more than 13,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.