Philly school board punts on reopening plan after backlash during marathon meeting

School District of Philadelphia headquarters

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

Barraged by six hours of non-stop criticism from parents, principals, and teachers, Philadelphia’s school board delayed voting on a plan that called for students to attend some in-person classes this fall after Superintendent William Hite asked for more time to reconsider his recommendations.

The board’s Thursday decision — or lack thereof — throws the School District of Philadelphia’s reopening plan into chaos, just over a month before school is slated to begin. The board voted 6-2 after midnight to recess this meeting and reconvene in one week to vote on a new reopening approach.

Thursday was the first open vetting of the school district’s “hybrid” education plan, which calls for most students to attend classes in-person two days a week and learn online the remaining three days.

In a marathon school board meeting that started at 4 p.m. and stretched into early Friday morning, public speakers overwhelmingly rejected the district’s plan. Almost everyone who testified — many of them district employees or parents — called for district schools to begin the year fully online.

It was, in short, an historic meeting on the path to an historic school year — one whose eventual shape grew only murkier after hours of public comment.

The school reopening debate has gripped Philadelphia, and much of the country, for weeks. Some pediatricians have implored schools to reopen, citing the potential academic and emotional toll on students, as well as economic damage caused by long-term school closures. President Donald Trump has also pushed districts to fully reopen, threatening to withhold funds if they remain virtual.

There are, however, clear risks associated with face-to-face learning amid a generational health crisis. Schools could become vectors for disease spread, especially among older students. And in a district that has struggled to abate asbestos, teachers question whether their aging school buildings will be sufficiently cleaned and ventilated.

While case counts and positive-test rates have fallen in Philadelphia from their mid-April heights, the country writ large has seen a recent spike in coronavirus cases. Philadelphia has also seen a “modest” rise in cases over the last few days, said city health commissioner Dr. Tom Farley.

Several large school districts — including Los Angeles, San Diego, and Baltimore — recently decided to conduct all classes virtually, at least to begin the school year.

‘Worst of both worlds’

The flood of condemnation included a coordinated effort by school district principals and assistant principals to voice their displeasure.

The union representing school-building administrators opposes a return to in-person classes for at least the first two months of the school year. Roughly a dozen union members pronounced their opposition — an unusual and public rebuke from the staff members tasked with executing the district’s plan.

“I’m the caregiver of two young children and a disabled spouse,” said Olivia Jones, an assistant principal at John Marshall Elementary in Frankford. “Who will care for me if I become sick? What insignificant words will you tell my family if I die?”

Several parents also skewered the district’s digital academy option, which would allow students to attend school fully online. Many said they objected to the fact that students in the academy wouldn’t necessarily be taught by teachers from their home schools.

Others felt the district’s idea of a split week fell short academically while leaving parents in a similar lurch as the spring, when many wrestled with balancing work and helping their children with online school.

“The current plan is truly the worst of both worlds,” said Emma Connolly, a teacher in South Philadelphia.

The one-sided testimony was at odds with recent surveys conducted by the district and teachers union that showed a plurality of parents and teachers preferred some sort of hybrid model. As recently as ten days ago, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said hybrid learning was its members’ preferred approach.

Some of the public speakers said the recent uptick in cases locally, paired with the national case surge, changed their mind. Others argued that, upon closer examination, the hybrid approach didn’t offer the kind of benefits they’d envisioned.

Still others, many of them educators, focused their opposition on the district itself, noting that even in normal times Philadelphia’s cash-strapped public school system routinely fails to maintain its aging school buildings.

“We’re essentially expected to trust in the district’s ability to secure adequate PPE and maintain cleaning protocols when they have never had the capacity to even make school buildings marginally safe,” said parent Sonia Rosen.

Whatever the rationale, the message rang loud: Philadelphia parents, teachers, and principals did not feel the district can reopen schools for face-to-face learning, as scheduled, on September 2.

‘Consequences of that are lifelong’

Against this wave, Superintendent William Hite and city Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley mustered a defense for the hybrid model.

A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education argued that a hybrid approach was the best way to do some in-person instruction while also maintaining physical distance among students and staff. Hite said that the another year of online schooling — on top of the virtual learning that capped the last school year — would lead to massive learning deficits and heap extra stress on the children of essential workers.

“We have to constantly think about what is happening with our most vulnerable young people,” said Hite.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has said “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school” for the best development and well-being of students.

Farley said the scientific evidence suggested schools could be reopened safely with the cleaning and distancing protocols in the school district’s plan. He urged the public to weigh the risks of reopening against the risks of letting 125,000 district students go months or years without in-person instruction.

“We do have quite a bit of concern that if children fall behind in their education in crucial years they may never catch up,” he said. “The consequences of that are lifelong.”

Those arguments, however, didn’t sway the scores of speakers who testified during a marathon session that lasted longer than any school board meeting in modern memory.

Among members of the school board, Angela McIver, who is also a district parent, was most vociferous in her opposition. McIver argued that the continued community transmission of the coronavirus, combined with a dearth of testing and tracing, made it simply too dangerous to reopen schools.

“We just witnessed six straight hours of near-unanimous calls to open schools with virtual learning,” said McIver. “I urge the board to reject this reopening plan.”

She and board member Lee Huang voted against the motion to recess for a week. Other board members said that they considered it prudent to give the administration more time to refine its plans.

The district opened registration for the digital academy on Wednesday, saying families had until August 4 to choose the all-virtual option. In the first 24 hours, 2,000 families had signed up.

Earlier in the day, administration officials said that based on their surveys, they expected 20 percent of families to choose that option. 

Hite said that registration would remain open as his administration goes back to the drawing board. If the district goes all-virtual, those who sign up will also be taught by teachers from their home schools, he said. 

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