For teachers, the day before the students come back to school is usually hectic, but exciting. Energy is high, and hopeful anticipation for a great year of teaching and learning hangs in the air. And this year’s first day was supposed to be the first day of school to top all other first days of school, with a return to in-person learning after a months-long hiatus of fully virtual teaching and learning, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
My colleagues and I didn’t get to partake in that this year.
Instead we joined parents, politicians, students, and concerned community members to gather outside our building, Science Leadership Academy (SLA) at Beeber, in protest of unsafe building conditions due to the dust particles floating around the building from ongoing construction, continued concerns about ongoing asbestos abatement, crumbling ceiling tiles, electrical issues, and a lack of a sufficient bathrooms in the building. (The school district’s solution to the bathroom issue was porta-potties in the parking lot.)
The action worked, thanks to the organizing of the SLA Beeber Home and School Association, the Philadelphia Student Union, and the advocacy of elected officials, State Sen. Vincent Hughes, State Rep. Morgan Cephas, Councilmembers Curtis Jones, Derek Green, Jamie Gauthier, Helen Gym, and Kendra Brooks, and others.
» READ MORE: It's back to school, but not back to normal
Just a few minutes into the protest, Reggie McNeil, chief operating officer of the School District of Philadelphia, announced that our school would “go virtual” and that the lower school would be relocated to another building. Teachers and staff learned this news at the same time as the general public, leaving us with just over two contractual hours left in our workday to plan for this last-minute change. In a Q&A with teachers after our lunchtime protest, Ryan Scallon, assistant superintendent for the school district, told us that giving teachers extra time to plan for the change simply was not an option.
To put this in perspective, teachers in my school have spent more than a week preparing a robust and engaging plan for a weeklong school-wide “September Institute,” during which we would start to rebuild our student-centered school culture and help students to safely readjust to in-person learning in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. We convened in every configuration possible -- as a whole as a staff, in department groups, in grade groups, and in advisory groups -- to identify each grade’s needs and strengths and to devise a plan that would facilitate a successful reentry into in-person learning for students who are carrying both individual and shared traumas from the last year and a half of pandemic life.
We decorated our rooms, made our seating charts, prepared our slides, and spaced out desks with “three feet of social distance when feasible.” (Let me tell you, it’s not feasible in most rooms.) We were ready to roll, only to be told the day before that we have to adjust all of our plans for virtual learning because the school district dragged its feet in responding to our building concerns, until the last possible minute.
There is so much wrong with this situation.
Our building, like many others in this city, should never have been neglected to the point of disrepair in the first place. The construction should have been started and finished much earlier during the 15 months that the building sat vacant since March 2020. The school district should have had the foresight and care to know that porta-potties are not a realistic solution to a shortage of bathrooms. The school district should have taken earlier action in regards to parent and community concerns about our building. And it should have allowed teachers more time to make new plans. The predominantly Black and brown population that my school serves should not be punished for the mismanagement and carelessness of school district leaders. The community should not have to fight for basic safety and equitable learning conditions for all.
These issues do not just affect SLA Beeber. We are not the only school with a building in disrepair. Our students are not the only students who have been slighted by the poor communication and irresponsibility of the school district. Our staff is not the only staff that has been disrespected and disregarded. The status-quo is not acceptable.
Katie Burrows-Stone teaches English to students at SLA Beeber in the School District of Philadelphia.