Philadelphia public schools roll out the ‘red carpet’ for first day of school

A line of young students wearing red polo shirts stand before a teacher.

Students enter the newly named Gloria Casarez Elementary School in Kensington, Philadelphia, for their first day of school on August 29, 2022. (Aubri Juhasz/WHYY)

Public schools across Philadelphia welcomed students back Monday morning, some with DJs, others with cheerleaders and mascots, and at the newly named Gloria Casarez Elementary School, by raising a Pride flag.

Officials rang in the school year at Casarez in Kensington with bells, and students, clutching new backpacks and lunchboxes, entered buildings after walking the “red carpet” (really red plastic tablecloths).

A group of students wearing red polo shirts are waiting to enter school.
Students enter the newly named Gloria Casarez Elementary School in Kensington, Philadelphia, for their first day of school on August 29, 2022. (Aubri Juhasz/WHYY)

Soli Mar stood with her 5-year-old son Liam outside his new school. Mar was nervous.

“He’s been home with me — until today,” she said.

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They were early, standing just outside the schoolyard fence, watching the older kids. Liam was quiet but wasn’t crying, unlike some of the first-graders who had just separated from their parents.

“I know he’s going to do good,” she said. “I’m just going to have a hard time.”

As if to prove his readiness for kindergarten, Liam, wearing a bright white polo shirt and a tiny disposable face mask, solved a math problem unprompted.

“Two plus two is four,” he said with a rush of excitement.

Monday was also the first day of class for the district’s new superintendent, Tony B. Watlington Sr., who succeeded longtime district leader William Hite in June.

“I love the first day of school because this is one of the few professions where everybody gets a chance to have a fresh start,” Watlington said at a press conference at Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

“To everyone in the School District of Philadelphia, I want to say welcome to a brand new school year. Let’s take advantage of this fresh new start.”

Philadelphia School Superintendent Tony Watlington talks to a parent and student outside of Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School in North Philadelphia on the first day of the school year on August 29, 2022.
Philadelphia School Superintendent Tony B. Watlington, Sr. talks to a parent and student outside of Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School in North Philadelphia on the first day of the school year on August 29, 2022. (Aubri Juhasz/WHYY)

The North Carolina native, who started working in schools as a custodian and bus driver and later became a teacher and administrator, said he began the day at one of the district’s bus garages.

He said drivers picked up their first student at 5:09 a.m. Monday, and he congratulated the district on being the first in the commonwealth to have electric buses.

Staffing this school year

Watlington said the district is 98% staffed with teachers and counselors, a pretty high percentage given the region’s teacher shortage, though that still leaves roughly 200 vacancies.

School support staff roles, including bus drivers, paraprofessionals, nurses, cafeteria workers, and building engineers, have lower staffing rates, ranging from 60% to 90%. Despite the high number of openings, Watlington said he expected the district to be able to still operate normally.

The district narrowly averted a strike by support staff on Friday by reaching a tentative agreement with Services Employees International Union Local 32BJ, the union representing about 2,000 workers, including bus drivers, custodians, and building engineers.

“We did not want to start the year with a strike, so we worked hard,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, who participated in Monday’s press conference and gave a shout-out to his Deputy Mayor of Labor Rich Lazer.

The agreement still has to be ratified in a union vote, which is scheduled for Saturday.

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Masks in Philadelphia schools

Unlike most districts in the region, and across the country, Philadelphia public schools still have a mask mandate, though only for the first 10 days of school.

Kendra McDow, the district’s medical officer, said the policy is meant to prevent widespread COVID outbreaks and keep kids in school.

A student in a red polo shirt holds a blue bag, as other students and teachers stand behind him.
A student at Gloria Casarez School waits to start the first day of school on August 29, 2022. (Aubri Juhasz/WHYY)

While some parents have balked at the policy, Lorraine Brown, who has two children and a younger brother at Dunbar Elementary, said she thinks the district has the right idea.

“I wish they’d keep it all school year,” she said. “It’s a wise decision because children have been out and about with family vacationing and you want to keep everybody as a unit safe.”

She said her children will keep masking after the mandate is lifted.

“They’re still going to have their mask on all year round. No questions asked.”

Helping students get caught up after COVID

Watlington said schools would be focused on delivering high-quality classroom instruction, assessing students’ individual needs, and providing tutoring.

Early dismissal on hot days

In June, officials said they would no longer declare district-wide early dismissals or days off due to high temperatures. Watlington said Monday that early dismissal could still be possible for the 57% of district schools that lack adequate air conditioning, as long as there are enough bus drivers available.

Plans for addressing gun violence

Kenney said the city continues to work with the district to coordinate neighborhood police patrols, especially at the beginning and end of the school day.

He also called on the commonwealth to increase gun control.

“The state is crazy when it comes to guns,” he said. “You can get a gun faster than a driver’s license.”

In Kensington, drug abuse and violent crime are common. On Monday, children walking to school navigated trash-clogged sidewalks and deliberately stared straight ahead.

The Casarez campus was clean and calm, and school leaders greeted parents warmly in English and Spanish.

The school was recently renamed for Gloria Casarez, the city’s first director of LGBT affairs, who attended the school growing up. Casarez died from breast cancer in 2014.

A student in a blue polo shirt waves a Pride flag.
Students at Gloria Casarez School received a Pride flag on the first day of school on August 29, 2022. (Aubri Juhasz/WHYY)

In the courtyard, children got Pride flags and flags from their home countries to wave.

“I see you and you matter,” they chanted in unison to one another before filing inside to start the day.

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