District, teachers union reach deal to reopen some Philly school buildings

AFT Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg speaks at a podium beside Mayor Jim Kenney, with Superintendent William Hite in the background

AFT Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg (center) joins Mayor Jim Kenney (left) and schools Superintendent William Hite to announce a plan for reopening some Philadelphia school buildings. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 3:39 p.m.

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Philadelphia school officials and union leaders have reached a compromise that will allow some schools to reopen their buildings on March 8 — roughly a year after the district last welcomed students into classrooms.

The deal, announced Monday, calls for pre-K through grade 2 students at 53 elementary schools to attend classes in-person twice a week, if they choose.

The School District of Philadelphia had planned to reopen 152 schools in February in its first phase of in-person learning. School officials and the union agreed that more schools will become eligible for in-person learning on a weekly, rolling basis until all pre-K to second-grade classes have returned. Announcements will be made each Monday.

The goal, said Superintendent William Hite, is for all 152 school buildings to be open by March 22.

“This is a big first step in the right direction,” said Hite. “It’s not one of us doing it alone, but us doing it together.”

The full list of the 53 schools set to reopen next week is below.

The deal means that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) will back off its loudly stated preference that staffers be fully vaccinated before stepping back into classrooms.

Affected staff in the first cohort are expected to report to buildings on Wednesday, March 3 — two days from now.

At a joint press conference Monday, union, district, and city officials said the buildings slated to reopen next week were selected because all parties agreed they had the ventilation necessary to offer a safe learning environment.

None of the 53 schools on the first list are outfitted with window fans for added ventilation, a remedy that drew ire despite expert claims that they can help with the airflow. The district says it will use air purifiers in that subset of schools instead of fans.

After phasing in PreK-2 students who’ve selected in-person learning, the district plans to welcome back students with complex needs and older students who take technical courses that require hands-on training.

“We’re all glad to have reached common ground so that we can move forward with getting students back into school buildings and supporting Philadelphia’s children and families,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, whose deputy mayor of labor has been a key mediator during negotiations between the district and the PFT. “This has been a detailed process — one that has taken some time — but that ultimately produced a plan all parties can feel comfortable with.”

Months of delays and revisions resulted in Philadelphia becoming one of the area’s last school systems to offer some form of in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The March 8 reopening will come 360 days after Philadelphia school buildings closed their doors on March 13, 2020.

As a result of this compromise, about 2,620 of the 9,000 students originally eligible will have the option to attend in-person classes twice a week — while completing the rest of their lessons virtually. The school district has about 120,000 students overall.

The district scrapped plans to reopen classrooms in August and November after community pushback. This third attempt to offer in-person classes originally called for students to return on Feb. 22, but that date was delayed twice as administrators and union officials negotiated details for weeks with guidance from a city-appointed mediator.

As recently as late February, the PFT opposed the district’s reopening plan, organizing rallies and highlighting what it saw as insufficient classroom ventilation. In January, union leaders said it would be “foolish” to have staff in classrooms before they were vaccinated.

“Our position all along is that the vaccinations were one more step in a multi-layered process that you need to mitigate the virus,” said Arthur Steinberg, president of the statewide teachers union to which PFT. “It was never a prerequisite for reoccupying buildings.”

The union outlined criteria that buildings must meet to earn its approval for re-occupancy. They include air exchange in all classrooms from a “non-window fan system,” abatement of all asbestos issues, signs indicating safe occupancy in all rooms, and in-person verification from union staff.

Philadelphia teachers began to receive vaccinations last week, but it will be more than a month before staff get both doses and receive the full, medical benefits. Officials don’t know how many staff will have received their first dose by the time some educators report back on Wednesday.

The district says families who initially chose to remain fully virtual will be able to opt into hybrid learning after the current list of eligible families are “successfully phased in.”

District officials have long argued that students — especially younger students — need in-person instruction to thrive. They’ve pointed to early data that shows younger students failing to make expected progress during the pandemic. Officials also argued that state and federal guidance says elementary students can learn safely in-person so long as schools take proper precautions.

The district’s plan was backed by city public health officials, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The argument for return, however, ran into a stone wall of mistrust of district building safety — one built over decades.

Educators and parents have said they don’t have confidence the district can provide a safe environment because of its troubling record on facilities maintenance. While all parents of children in grades pre-K through grade 2 were given the option to send their children back to classrooms twice a week, only about a third selected to do so in a November survey.

Officials from all parties stressed the cooperative nature of Monday’s announcement, but union leaders said it wasn’t an easy compromise and required a slow, rebuilding of trust between labor and management.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat what unfolded over the past weeks and months,” said Steinberg. “It’s been enormously challenging.”

Still, district leaders said it was important to give the thousands of families who wanted in-person instruction that opportunity. Now, with a deal in place, they finally seem poised to deliver.

“What you’ve seen in the last few weeks is people who’ve said: Let’s get this done,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent group of the PFT. “There is a roadmap.”

Hite said he hopes this first step — however incremental — will convince other families to sign up for face-to-face classes.

“Once we start getting young people in school, I think other individuals will be inspired and motivated and encouraged to come back,” said Hite.

The schools below are set to resume in-person learning on March 8:

  • Chester Arthur School Elementary
  • John Barry Elementary
  • Mary McLeod Bethune School
  • Amedee Bregy School
  • Henry A. Brown School
  • Joseph W. Catharine
  • Cayuga Elementary
  • Cook-Wissahickon School
  • Anna B. Day School
  • Julia De Burgos
  • Stephen Decatur School
  • Thomas A. Edison High
  • Franklin S. Edmonds School
  • Ethan Allen School
  • Dr. Ethan Allen School
  • Thomas K. Finletter School
  • Fitler Academics Plus
  • Edward Gideon School
  • Joseph Greenberg School
  • Albert M. Greenfield School
  • Andrew Hamilton School;
  • John F. Hartranft School
  • Edward Heston School
  • Henry H. Houston
  • Julia Ward Howe School
  • John Marshall School
  • Juniata Park Academy
  • Kenderton Elementary
  • Henry W. Lawton School
  • Abraham Lincoln High
  • Alain Locke School
  • William H. Loesche School
  • William C. Longstreth School
  • Mayfair School
  • John F. McCloskey School
  • William McKinley Elementary
  • John Moffet School
  • Hampton Moore School
  • Hon. Luis Munoz-Marin Elementary
  • Olney Elementary
  • Overbrook Educational Center
  • Overbrook Elementary
  • Penn Alexander School
  • Penrose School
  • Rhodes Elementary
  • Shawmont School
  • Isaac A. Sheppard School
  • Southwark School
  • Edward Steel School
  • Thurgood Marshall School
  • John H. Webster School
  • Frances E. Willard School
  • Richard R. Wright School

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