‘These buildings are not all created equal’: Philadelphia district plans to reopen 53 schools March 8

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (left), American Federation of Teachers  Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg (center) and Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite on Monday.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (left), American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg (center) and Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite on Monday. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

The Philadelphia school district will reopen some of its schools, but not all, to early-grade students March 8, Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William Hite announced Monday.

Fifty three schools are to open March 8 to students in prekindergarten to second grade. Staff members, including teachers needed for those grades, will return Wednesday. 

Other elementary schools, and high schools offering pre-K classrooms, will open in batches over the next several weeks. The district’s goal is to announce March 8 another group that will return on March 15. The third group to return will be announced March 15 and return on March 22. Schools’ reopening will be subject to a detailed ongoing safety review by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ environmental scientist.

Monday’s announcement is the latest development in the district’s push to reopen school buildings, which have been closed for nearly a year. The plan marks the end of a mediation process overseen by Dr. Peter Orris, a Chicago public health expert hired in February to determine if schools were meeting safety requirements laid out in an agreement on safe school reopening reached last fall between the teachers union and the district. The mediation process ended with the decision that the union conduct a process to “clear for occupancy” classrooms and other spaces in the 152 school buildings slated to open for the youngest learners. 

“Nearly a full year of online learning has presented challenges for our students, their families, and for our teachers and staff,” Kenney said during the announcement at Richard Wright Elementary School in North Philadelphia, one of the 53 schools.  

Of 32,000 pre-K through second grade students, about 9,000 chose the hybrid learning plan in a survey last fall. Hite said about 400 have changed their minds, while other families have expressed an interest in some in-person learning. He said he didn’t know how many students would return next week.

“We have more interest in people wanting to come back now,” he said. “But that’s the whole point, once we start getting young people in schools I think other individuals will be inspired to come back.”

Officials didn’t say what made the remaining buildings unsafe or why the first 53 buildings made the list, but the PFT released a protocol for evaluating all buildings. Hite and Arthur Steinberg, trustee of the PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund, said that an effort was made to make sure schools in all areas of the city were on the first reopening list. A Chalkbeat analysis showed the schools are geographically distributed and their demographic makeup almost exactly matches that of the district: 55% Black, 22% Latino, 13% white and 6% Asian. The district hasn’t released data about the racial demographics of families who chose hybrid learning.

The district twice delayed reopening for the early grades while awaiting Orris’s decision. PFT President Jerry Jordan called on his members to stay home ahead of a planned Feb. 22 reopening due to safety concerns, and the district agreed to allow teachers to continue working remotely while the mediator reviewed ventilation reports and other documents tied to building safety.

Much of the original union-district memo of agreement revolves around social distancing, personal protective equipment, and sanitation of school buildings. The union focused on ventilation, an issue that has loomed large in the reopening debate, particularly following an uproar over the use of 3,000 small residential window fans to improve circulation in 32 schools without working ventilation systems. 

Under the path forward announced Monday, the fans will be replaced with air purifiers, officials said. Ventilation experts say that fans coupled with purifiers are ideal, but the fans purchased by the district were so heavily criticized that those who worked out the agreement decided not to use them.

“The decision was made to remove them because they were such an issue,” Kenney said. 

At some of the schools where fans were considered a solution, the ventilation systems were shut down because of asbestos contamination — and, among other concerns, union leaders still want to know if the asbestos has been removed.

While many of the nation’s other large school districts have hammered out reopening plans, Philadelphia has been an outlier. Observers say the stalemate is due in part to years of mistrust between district officials and the teachers union, particularly over building conditions and delayed maintenance. 

Some teachers and union officials believe this is the time to address the longstanding safety issues, but some parents and critics fear the impasse is hurting Philadelphia’s students, many of whom are children of color from low-income families.

“The fight for safe school buildings started before the pandemic,” Steinberg said. “And it’s one that we intend to continue until every single student has access to the 21st century school buildings that they so richly deserve. It’s a fight that is rooted in systemic racism that for far too long has been shortchanging our students, a majority of whom are Black and brown and a majority of whom are experiencing great levels of poverty.” 

The conditions of school buildings in Philadelphia “would never, ever be tolerated in a whiter, wealthier district,” he said, citing the failure of the state to adequately fund Philadelphia schools.  

Hite has stressed that the district has spent $65 million on schools in the pandemic, including nearly $4 million in ventilation assessments and other measures to improve air flow. But it wasn’t considered sufficient for many teachers and others who are accustomed to working in buildings that have been plagued over the years with problems associated with mold, asbestos, peeling paint, and other environmental hazards. 

Kenney and Deputy Mayor for Labor Rich Lazer, along with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, were involved in the discussions. 

“Over the course of the last couple of weeks people have gotten together...this is a study of problem solving at its best,” said Weingarten, who attended the announcement. Jordan was ill and did not attend. 

Steinberg agreed. “The goal of all of this is to get as many kids back in school as quickly as we can because they need to be there,” he said. He added that union leaders and Hite “are in the process of repairing that so we can go forward with the issues that confront this district that it is all in our best interest to get resolved.” 

In answer to a question, Hite said he believed all the district’s buildings are safe now, but added that the teachers and public needed to feel the same way in order for any reopening to be successful. 

“I’m not the king,” he said. “It doesn’t mean everyone else feels like that. I do believe that’s the case.” 

Also helping to move the talks along was a six-week vaccination program for teachers and other school and child care workers in the city starting Feb. 22 by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Hite could not say how many district staff members needed for the initial reopening have been vaccinated, but said the program has ramped up its ability to vaccinate 9,000 people a week. 

After the younger students return to school buildings, Hite said he wants to bring back special education students in third through eighth grade and some high school students. He couldn’t say if any of those groups could return before the end of the school year.

Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson and Council members Helen Gym and Maria Quinoñes-Sanchez attended the press conference, but did not speak. Both said later that it is important to involve families and community members in decision-making going forward.

Quinoñes-Sanchez said while it was important to draw attention to the problems with the district’s buildings, reopening schools sooner rather than later was also critical.

While “these buildings are not all created equal,” a breakthrough in reaching a reopening agreement was “realizing the question was how, not if,” Quinoñes-Sanchez said.

Gym, who co-chaired a council hearing last week with Quinoñes-Sanchez on the school reopening, said many families of color, for whom the pandemic has hit the hardest, live in multi-generational households and feared their children would bring home the coronavirus and infect family members. 

“This was a journey that required...an investment in building trust and dialogue with school staff and families,” Gym said afterward. “The public opinion, especially by race, is undeniable, and what’s been clear is that families see school reopening as much as about their health as about their children’s education. So the two have to go hand in hand.”

Neena Hagen contributed data analysis. 

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