Despite teachers’ concerns, superintendent believes Philadelphia classrooms are safe

William Hite speaking to an audience.
Superintendent William Hite said on Thursday he feels the district’s school buildings are ready for teachers and students to return this month. (Bas Slabbers/NewsWorks)

With about 2,000 teachers set to return to buildings Monday, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has asked for a third-party evaluation of whether classrooms meet high enough safety standards for students and teachers to safely come back this month for in-person learning.

PFT president Jerry Jordan said he requested the evaluation because there are a number of unresolved ventilation issues. “Due to ongoing ventilation issues amidst a global pandemic, I cannot, at this time, say schools are safe to reopen,” Jordan said in an email to his members Wednesday night.” The union is seeking the assessment under a school safety memorandum of agreement it reached with the district in the fall. 

Superintendent William Hite said Thursday that he welcomes the evaluation and believes the district has taken enough precautions to make schools safe. 

“Safety and choice are the two pillars of the [school reopening] plans we’ve created,” he said, citing not just plans to circulate fresh air in buildings, but other protocols including frequent and random testing for the virus. 

The teachers are due to report to school buildings Monday under the first phase of a plan to gradually resume some in-person learning, starting with students in prekindergarten through second grade. Students who elected to return instead of continue learning at home  — about 9,000 out of 32,000 eligible — are due back starting on Feb. 22.

According to the agreement, the third party will be appointed by the city’s Department of Labor. It is likely to be a labor mediator versed in issues of workplace safety.

City Department of Labor spokesperson Lauren Cox issued a statement saying “we are in conversations with a potential mediator and can share more once that person is confirmed,” and the person’s job would be to “charged with determining whether the district is in compliance with the terms outlined in the MOA.” 

Hite said he didn’t expect the third-party intervention to be complete by Monday,  and that while the process could possibly delay the return of students, “it will not delay our expectations for teachers to be in classrooms and they would only be in the classroom by themselves.” Ventilation is of particular concern when there are many people congregating together. 

The district has been doing air balancing tests in its buildings to determine adequate ventilation levels to support occupancy by multiple people. The reports are posted on its website.  

Jordan said that school reports on ventilation “are in many cases incomplete,” with many classrooms having “zeros” next to them, meaning that they have minimal air circulation.

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The district has purchased window fans to recirculate air in some classrooms in at least 19 elementary school buildings that do not have adequate ventilation systems. The fans have been criticized and ridiculed as a flimsy solution to a serious problem. 

Hite defended the fans, calling them “a good faith effort we’re making to introduce fresh air” into classrooms. 

“In many school districts that have returned already, they’re simply opening windows,” he said in a press call with reporters. “We wanted to create a mechanism to guarantee a certain amount of fresh air into the spaces, in addition to everything else we’re doing. This is just one piece.” 

Besides noting that teachers who return next week will be alone in their classrooms, he said that principals, cleaners, custodians, and food service workers have already been working in school buildings for weeks, and that the district has been and will continue regular COVID-19 testing for those in buildings. He reiterated that all building occupants are expected to observe other protocols, including wearing a mask, frequent handwashing, and social distancing.

He said he hopes the outside evaluator will find the district has met the terms of the agreement and that there are safe levels of ventilation in the schools. If not, he said the district would follow any recommendations made.  

The union would not say whether it was advising teachers not to return to classrooms on Monday, and Hite would not say whether any who do not will be disciplined. 

Kate Sannicks-Lerner, a kindergarten teacher at Julia de Burgos Elementary School in Kensington, said she does not plan to set foot in the building on Monday, feeling conditions are unsafe. The first “air balancing” reports for de Burgos had zeroes for most of the classrooms, meaning there was not sufficient air circulation. A report that came out two days ago had higher numbers, which indicates better air conditions

“I will report to work at 440,” she said, referring to the district’s headquarters at 440 North Broad Street. “Or maybe the parking lot (at de Burgos). I haven’t decided yet. I’ll continue to sign in and teach my students virtually.”

She said her husband has a heart condition that puts him at high risk should he contract COVID-19 and she is worried about the new variants of the virus that have been circulating.

Jordan said that communication with the district on ventilation and other issues has not been ideal, describing it as an unsatisfying “back and forth.” He said the district has limited the ability of the PFT’s environmental scientist, Jerry Roseman, to independently test and inspect classrooms. 

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“I have it in writing,” he said. Hite disputed this.

“They’ve been invited to observe the testing, and we are providing all of the air balancing reports to them as well,” he said.

The mediation, Hite said, “is a natural next step” in a situation where the two parties don’t agree, adding: “I look forward to the outcome.” 

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