The latest public school debacle unfolded this week when teachers refused to return to classrooms at the direction of Philadelphia Federation of Teachers boss Jerry Jordan, defying Superintendent William Hite’s directive for them to show up. When Hite threatened no-shows with discipline, Mayor Jim Kenney stepped in and said teachers could stay away after all.
The call was for 2,000 teachers to return to classrooms Monday to prepare a limited reopening for about 9,000 pre-K through second grade students on February 22. The district says it has worked to make buildings safe for return, but the PFT balked at some elements of the plans for ventilation. Hence the showdown.
Reopening schools is probably the most thorny and challenging of all the problems presented by the pandemic. Every side represents opposing pressures: parents with jobs who need kids to be in school, educators and other child advocates alarmed about the devastating loss not only of in-person learning, but social supports provided by schools, and families and teachers concerned about safety. Add this to lack of consistent guidance or support from the federal government, and it’s a dilemma playing out in school districts across the country, with few satisfactory solutions.
Philadelphia has the additional challenges of racial and economic inequities, ancient buildings, and a history of inadequate funding. A trust gap between the district and teachers and parents has been exacerbated by blunders by the district in addressing environmental hazards, recently centered on Ben Franklin High School sharing its site with Science Leadership Academy. This week, the PFT said the district has not shared enough data on the ventilation standards.
It all adds up to a no-win situation. But there must be a path to opening schools, above all for the sake of children suffering irretrievable losses in their education and development.
Of course the PFT has a stake in safety issues faced by the district, and has given teachers a powerful voice in this particular debate. But other voices must have equal standing.
Turning this into a Teacher vs. District fight is not the path. A district that often falls short of communicating is a problem, and Superintendent Hite is ultimately accountable. But the size and complexity of this problem cannot rest only on his shoulders. When Mayor Kenney took control of the schools back from the state and created the local school board, he claimed “Philadelphia will finally be able to hold one person accountable for their school system, the mayor.” He must now be a bigger part of the solution.
The pandemic immediately laid bare failures and flaws in public education in this city and others that have been generations in the making. The path toward fixing it requires a much wider conversation that must happen now. Mayor Kenney has the power to convene a working group that includes not only the District and the union, but parents, educators, child advocates, elected officials, as well as members of the business community, who have an important stake in this. They should commit to the immediate task of reopening schools — and the longer-term task of rethinking how public education should work for all. It’s time to end stand-offs, and begin standing up.