Less than a week after hundreds of teachers, students, parents, and other community members joined a Zoom meeting and decried the Philadelphia School District’s hybrid plan for reopening, officials changed course. Heeding concerns about rising coronavirus cases, the district announced it would offer all-virtual instruction until the first marking period ends Nov. 17. Then, if health officials and others say it’s safe, students will transition to the mix of in-person and virtual learning.

Amid so much change and uncertainty, The Inquirer’s opinion team wanted to hear what educators want for their school communities. Here is what we asked three educators — and we hope to hear from more. Educators can use this form to submit answers to the questions below, or email us at opinion@inquirer.com.

1. What do you hope to happen for the school year (all virtual vs. hybrid), and what factors landed you there?

2. What does the district need to do to make you feel schools are safe?

Rayya Aderson is a special-education teacher in Philadelphia.
Courtesy of Rayya Aderson
Rayya Aderson is a special-education teacher in Philadelphia.

All-virtual is best, since there’s no safety panacea during this pandemic

1. All-virtual instruction is the best option. Many of our students are diagnosed with respiratory issues such as asthma, where speaking through a mask could compromise their oxygen levels. It wouldn’t be wise to risk health concerns or even continued student discomfort, especially if we can be proactive and teach virtually.

The accommodations that special-education teachers and staff usually provide will not be as effective (if even feasible) around the six-foot precaution, which is also unlikely with 25 students in a class. For example, some of my students require intense one-to-one instruction from time to time to model the skills we’re teaching close up. My learning support students are highly motivated by confidential in-person conversations. I don’t see how we could possibly provide these with the distance and masks COVID requires.

Teaching is not a profession where you keep your distance. Students will not gain a true learning experience with these restrictions in place. But using technology, teachers and students can still be “face to face” without compromising the health of their communities, including by traveling back and forth on public transportation.

2. Limiting class size to 15 students or less and proper daily cleaning and disinfecting would be a start. But nothing serves as a panacea in these unforeseen times.

Rayya Aderson is a special-education teacher in the Philadelphia School District.

Nancy Ironside is a teacher at Science Leadership Academy Middle School.
Courtesy of Nancy Ironside
Nancy Ironside is a teacher at Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

We’ll eventually need hybrid learning, but the district must prepare properly

1. Some kids will eventually need to come to school to learn. Implementing a one-size-fits-all policy for the district’s some 125,000 students is impractical. The district should give schools autonomy in meeting the needs of their communities. By relinquishing decisions on how to open to individual schools, I believe more hybrid learning would be possible.

Schools and teachers know their families and facilities. Allowing them to set the schedule for who needs to come in and when, where to safely house them, and how to safely provide instruction would help solve our longer-term problem of transitioning more kids back into schools when the time is right. When students participate in digital learning, they should learn with teachers from their own schools, which would make an eventual reentry that much smoother.

2. First and foremost, the district needs to provide PPE, cleaning supplies, and training to anyone who wants to or needs to enter the buildings. This is particularly true for members of the 32BJ SEIU service employees union, who will bear the brunt of the responsibility to keep buildings clean. A strong collaboration between the union and district is a way to protect these essential workers.

Students and teachers should have some say in whether they can safely come to school. If employers will trust people to assess their own health to decide if they’re well enough to work, we must also trust when they say they cannot be physically present for personal or family-related reasons. Some school buildings— like those contaminated with asbestos — are inherently unsafe. Providing families and teachers in those settings extra flexibility will be crucial.

Nancy Ironside is a teacher at Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

Sharif El-Mekki is a 28-year veteran educator.
Andrew Huth
Sharif El-Mekki is a 28-year veteran educator.

Seize this opportunity for long-term change

1. Start virtually and move to in-person schooling as prudence and planning allow. We must be ready for change, agile in pursuing novel solutions, and not shy about pivoting as the facts — and the needs of our families — change.

Above all, I hope out of the current crisis we have the courage to “liberate education” so that Black and brown students have an equal shot at school success through innovative thinking combined with proven approaches, such as those modeled by the Center for Black Educator Development, Philadelphia Community of Stakeholders, and the Reconstruction company. We must remember: Our kids are watching. How we solve this problem is how they’ll remember us.

2. True safety will only arise through a process defined by real inclusivity and transparency, not just the appearance of it. It should welcome perspectives that are diametrically opposed to those the media tend to cover, and from community members unable to attend marathon Zoom meetings.

We need a process that challenges the region’s best and brightest minds to work on multiple solutions for the complex scenarios that surely await; prioritizes the most vulnerable and impacted — medically, academically, and those with limited access to the technology and support needed for quality remote learning; and calls out those who carry the money bags so the district and its partners can be the creative problem-solvers we need.

Our district and schools should get from the city the resources, time, and trust to build virtual versions of their school communities and new ways of learning they’ll want to keep around even after schools open again. It’s a process that’s long overdue, but not too late to begin.

Sharif El-Mekki is a 28-year veteran educator and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, and has helped launch organizations pursuing educational justice, such as The Fellowship – Black Male Educators for Social Justice/BMEC, the 8 Black Hands, and Phillys7thWard.