Philly school board expresses support for return to classrooms at meeting with limited public comment

School District of Philadelphia headquarters

School District of Philadelphia headquarters (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

At a Philadelphia Board of Education meeting that featured unusually limited public comment, board members expressed support for Superintendent William Hite’s plan to start in-person learning for pre-registered Pre-K through grade 2 students on Feb 22. 

Cohorts of students would be in classrooms two days a week. Pertinent staff is expected to report to schools on Feb. 8. 

No formal vote on the matter was taken Thursday, as the board granted the district authority over the summer to reconvene classroom learning.

At the start of the meeting, Hite said virtual learning has caused learning loss and physical and mental health issues. 

“A lack of in-person learning unfortunately disproportionately harms our low-income students,” he said. “Our most vulnerable children are falling farther behind.”

Much of the public testimony about the return plan came from parents and teachers who expressed disdain for the hybrid model. Most were concerned with the risk of contracting COVID-19, especially with new strains in the U.S. and the slow roll-out of vaccines.

 “If you allow schools to reopen for in-person learning before all adults can be vaccinated we will hold you accountable for when this decision will inevitably result in illnesses, deaths, and community spread,” said Sonya Rosen, a parent and lecturer at Penn. “Instead of investing in reopening buildings for thousands of unvaccinated people, the SDP should invest in supporting the hard work teachers have done all year to create dynamic online learning environments for our students.”

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers opposes the return to school buildings until its members get vaccinated. The union and the school district have grappled over reopening for months. The two sides came to a memorandum of understanding in the fall that would have brought teachers back to classrooms without being inoculated, but union leaders say the calculus has changed.

Critics say the district has yet to provide sufficient data on reliable classroom ventilation. With the district’s recent history of unsafe building conditions, some teachers doubt the district will put them in a safe position. 

Board members asked Hite about a plan to use fans to aid ventilation efforts.

“This is not a typical window fan,” said Hite.

Hite said schools will also measure temperatures to ensure classrooms are comfortable learning environments.

Third try

This is the district’s third attempt at reopening. A plan announced last July was dropped after receiving an outpouring of opposition at a marathon board meeting with six hours of testimony from parents, principals, and teachers. 

Hite opted to nix a second attempt in November due to rising coronavirus cases. Before that decision, parents were surveyed about return preferences. About a third of parents chose in-person. A third opted to remain all virtual and the remainder didn’t reply. 

Those pre-K-2 families who opted in are the ones eligible to return on Feb. 22. Families who chose all-virtual or who didn’t respond to the survey in November will remain all-virtual until “a later date when we can phase in more students,” the district said in a press release.

The district’s plan to return falls in line with the advice of many public health experts.

Last week, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia endorsed in-person learning for students in the region, saying it may be safer than the alternative. That was echoed by recent reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that schools are not major drivers of community transmission. The president of the American Federation of Teachers also endorsed a return to school plan without widespread vaccination so long as rigorous testing was in place.

The plan to return on Feb. 22 would come nearly a year after most Philadelphia public school students last interacted with teachers in classrooms.

“I trust the medical experts that we have advising us,” said board member Mallory Fix Lopez. “It becomes very difficult for us if we’re not following the guidelines of our health experts.” 

Some scientists, though, say it’s wiser to wait until everyone is vaccinated. 

Board member Angela McIver agrees with that approach. McIver was the most outspoken board member against returning. 

“I can’t in good conscience support any reopening plan while we witness cities all over the country whose hospitals are overwhelmed by a virus our country has failed to control,” said McIver. “I can’t support if teachers cannot be fully vaccinated before coming back to school.”  

Last week, city health officials said it could be one or two months before teachers get their first vaccine dose. That means full dosage may not come until April or May.

During Thursday’s meeting, Hite said the district is in an ongoing conversation with the city to prioritize vaccines for employees already in schools and those scheduled to come back. 

“At this time, we do not know when or how many doses of the vaccine will be available for district staff,” said Hite. 

The district will also not mandate vaccinations for staff. Hite said the district hopes to set up vaccination clinics in school buildings but has no set dates. 

Thursday’s board meeting was significantly different than the July iteration. Two days before Hite announced his most recent hybrid plan, a policy was implemented limiting public comment to 30 speakers and cutting the time allotment for each — moves that incensed many onlookers and participants. Most public speakers were cut off mid-sentence, including one of the few student speakers. Some of the frequent testifiers who didn’t make the list recorded comments and posted them to social media instead.

Retired teacher Diane Payne questioned the motive behind limiting the number of public comments.

“I demand you remove the cap that silences the voices of Philadelphians who care about their schools,” she said. “You all knew there would be an outcry.”

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