Educators and students should be working and learning in school buildings because we know it’s where the true magic of education happens. And the health and safety of educators and students are every bit as important as the classes that take place. As things stand, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers cannot definitely say that buildings are safe to reopen.
In addition to evaluating ongoing critical issues like infection rates, and availability of ventilation and PPE, we must also contend with new obstacles such as the emergence of new, more virulent strains of the virus. Since late October, Philadelphia has been far beyond “substantial,” and the risk of community transmission remains high. Before we can reopen our school buildings, we need to take every precaution to ensure that all safeguards are in place.
Students in Philadelphia have historically navigated education cuts and conditions that would never be tolerated in a wealthier, whiter school district. In a school system that educates primarily children of color experiencing poverty, it should be lost on no one that once again, too-often marginalized students are facing a return to potentially hazardous schools. School buildings in Philadelphia average more than 70 years old, eclipsing the national average by decades. Our union’s work to ensure the safety of students and staff is rooted in our commitment to changing these deeply inequitable systems.
Right now, there are two key areas that the district and city need to address in advance of reentry into school buildings: ventilation and vaccines.
The School District has made significant progress in addressing the ventilation crisis. But we’re still lacking evidence of acceptable air flow and quality in too many schools. This is vital information in normal times, but particularly crucial in the midst of an airborne pandemic. The district claims that the “air balancing reports” (part of our negotiated agreement regarding a safe reopening of buildings) are accurate and thorough. But dozens of reports are missing, and dozens more are incomplete. Standard industry measurements are missing in far too many reports. We also have significant concerns regarding the efficacy of the fans being installed in hundreds of rooms. Further, we are concerned about the frigid winter air that will be circulated by the fans, as well as by the fact that at least one of the fan models being utilized is approved for residential use only, indicating that fans may not remain operational if used constantly as will happen in the school environment. The fans must also be removed from the window in the rain and snow, as they pose an electrical risk, and are without filters, meaning they will circulate dust and other particulates.
This approach, coupled with the missing data, is just not scientifically sound. Given the district’s track record amidst massive facilities issues, their approach does not engender confidence. The time is now for the district to commit to a true, transparent process to not only provide the data but to also provide it in a way that allows our experts to verify it.
Access to COVID vaccines is another key layer of protection for students and educators. The Biden administration has committed to expedited vaccine distribution and recognized the need to prioritize the vaccination of educators. In addition to ensuring that frontline workers, including grocery store workers, home health-care workers, and other individuals who have been, throughout this crisis, doing heroic work, educators being asked to return to buildings should be vaccinated quickly.
If the ventilation metrics cannot be met, and if a clear path toward vaccination is not in place, reopening buildings creates the potential for an uptick in community spread. And we are extremely troubled that the district has been unable to give us any assurance that every school building scheduled to reopen will be safe. While this is highly alarming, the PFT is committed to working with the district to resolve these issues.
A plan to reopen schools must consider many different factors. But addressing ventilation and vaccination are two critical issues that the PFT believes can go a long way in allowing us to return to school safely. Our union is working not to stop the reopening of school buildings, but rather to make sure that when school buildings reopen, they are safe. Our students and educators deserve nothing less.
Jerry T. Jordan is president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.