Child welfare nonprofits in Philly call for teachers to return to classrooms

Teachers gather outside Samuel Gompers School in Philadelphia to protest the district's plan to reopen classrooms for 9,000 pre-K to second grade students.

Teachers gather outside Samuel Gompers School in Philadelphia to protest the district's plan to reopen classrooms for 9,000 pre-K to second grade students. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Thirteen city nonprofits that work with children and families released a statement Tuesday calling on the teachers union to abandon its battle with the School District of Philadelphia and allow some teachers to return to their classrooms.

The district had asked some teachers to report to school buildings yesterday ahead of a planned return of up to 9,000 young children to their classrooms later this month. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has objected, arguing that buildings are not yet safe because of ventilation problems and that members should be vaccinated before returning. Both sides now await a decision from a city-appointed mediator.

The nonprofit coalition argues that schools can be reopened safely this month, but teachers must heed the district’s call to return in order to begin that process.

“We believe teachers (who do not qualify for health-related leave) must first return to their schools to thoroughly review and assess the safety protocols and ventilation systems for themselves,” their statement reads. “This step is essential so that teachers have confidence that they can safely educate their young students….We urge the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to adopt the same mindset and work with its members to get the schools opened.”

The coalition includes: Big Brothers Big Sisters, Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, The Consortium, Episocopal Community Services, First Up champions for Early Education, Indochinese American Council, Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia, Norris Square Neighborhood Project, Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and the Support Center for Child Advocates.

As evidence for their claims, the coalition points to the fact that private and parochial schools in Philadelphia have been providing in-person instruction for months with few outbreaks, and that teachers and school-based staff will be eligible to receive the vaccine from pop-up clinics slated to open on February 22. They also note that 57 of the 61 school districts in the Philadelphia-area have opened for in-person instruction — some of which they say also have infrastructure issues but “have found ways to make it work.”

The coalition also calls on district leaders to ensure transparent and consistent communication to parents by principals and central office staffers.

Donna Jones, executive director of the Metropolitan Christian Council of Philadelphia, said she is still wary of sending students back, but supports getting teachers back to classrooms so they can evaluate how safe they are.

“We have children at home without supervision,” she said of the families her organization works with. “That’s just not the best, healthy thing for them.”

Superintendent William Hite’s call to return to classrooms aligns with city public health officials, as well as guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The task at hand is making schools safe enough to support hybrid instruction for the youngest students. Nothing should stand in the way of this happening this month,” the statement from the nonprofits reads.

Asked for a response, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan issued a blistering condemnation.

“Frankly, I’m offended that these organizations would suggest that educators, who have, time and again stepped up to the plate in truly heroic ways, haven’t risen to the occasion amidst a global pandemic that has killed nearly 3,000 Philadelphians,” Jordan said in a statement. “ I will not allow my members to be villainized for demanding that their classrooms are safe for occupancy for themselves and their students.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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