Mayor says Philadelphia teachers should not be disciplined if they don’t show up

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney speaks at a podium in front of glass windows, as a police officer wears a dress uniform and protective mask behind him.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (Kimberly Paynter / WHYY)

Mayor Jim Kenney strongly suggested during a news conference Tuesday that teachers should not be disciplined if they do not show up to work for the proposed reopening Monday over COVID-19 safety concerns.

“I don’t want to see anybody disciplined,” Kenney said during the virtual press conference, providing updates on the city’s handling of the virus. “I don’t want to do this in a punitive way. We’ve all been through a lot within the last year and everybody is scared, everybody is stressed. And you’re more likely to add to that stress by disciplining people. I don’t think that gets us anywhere and maybe forebodes a longer term problem with managing staff personnel.”

Kenney’s comments Tuesday appeared to conflict with Superintendent William Hite’s statement earlier this month that “disciplinary action will be taken” against teachers who don’t return to work in school buildings. The declaration was made after Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told teachers not to show up to work on Feb. 8 over safety concerns around the vaccine and ventilation. The details of Hite’s punishment were not made clear.

Though confirmed numbers of the virus across the city have lowered significantly a devastating milestone was reached on Monday.

“Yesterday, Philadelphia recorded its 3,000th death from COVID-19 — that’s more than 3,000 Philadelphians lost to this terrible virus in less than a year,”  Kenney said. “My thoughts are with the loved ones of those who we’ve lost. Each life taken is one too many.” 

Kenney reiterated Tuesday that school staff, teachers, principals and anyone who works in school buildings will start to get vaccinated the week of Feb. 22, the same time teachers are to return to their school buildings. The mayor also said there may be a message for parents later in the week.

Last Wednesday, Jordan invoked terms in a memorandum of agreement the district signed last fall that dictated the safety conditions in schools before in-person learning could resume. The agreement called for hiring an independent mediator to determine whether the safety requirements were met, if the two sides were at odds.

The inspector, Dr. Peter Orris of Chicago, began his work on Friday.

“We are working with the district and the union in an effort to work with the mediator to make the determination on the safety of schools in which the unions think are not safe and the district thinks they are,” Kenney said Tuesday. “The things that are in the MOU we need to work out through the mediator.”

The vaccinations for the teachers are to occur at the Roberts Center on the campus of the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, or CHOP, plus six different school-based locations. The plan requires schools to provide a list of names of their staff to CHOP. The schools will then notify their staff members about how they can contact the hospital to schedule an appointment.

“I think as we move towards more and more people getting vaccinated, discussions and resolutions on the buildings themselves, I think we will get to where we need to be,” Kenney said. 
Natasha Bradley, who is a parent and teaches at Edward T. Steel Elementary School, told Chalkbeat her primary concern with the hybrid reopening was not about the vaccine.

“Ventilation in the school,” Bradley said. “Specifically at the school where I work. According to the report, it says that air quality is zero, so nobody should be in the building. Honestly, nobody should be in any space. And the only space that was available was INC [a district library], where people could actually be in a space with proper airflow.” 

In regards to teachers not being disciplined for not showing up to work, Bradley agrees with the mayor.

“I don’t think we should be disciplined for anything because the district did not keep their promise,” Bradley said. “They said the buildings were ready and up to par and they are not. I don’t understand how they are able to dictate to us that we need to go back to buildings when they themselves are not back in their buildings and telling us this in the comfort of their own home.”

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