Philly schools are back, but strife looms over COVID, labor, and building problems

Students wear face masks outside of their school in Philly

Philadelphia School District students at Samuel Powel Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School returned to in-person learning on Aug. 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For the first time in 536 days, Philadelphia’s public school system is fully reopened for in-person classes.

That’s the headline for a historic first day of school in the state’s largest school district, as roughly 120,000 masked students streamed into classrooms for a long-awaited return.

How long they’ll remain there is an open question. Labor negotiations, building woes, and the specter of COVID continue to hover, framing the first day with a nervous energy.

A family poses for a photo while wearing face masks outside their school
Philadelphia School District students at Samuel Powel Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School returned to in-person learning on Aug. 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Parent Mercedes Brooks described her mood as “a little anxious, a little nervous,” as she dropped her first-grade daughter, Zamiah, off at Powel Elementary in West Philadelphia Tuesday morning.

“She’s gonna cry,” interjected Zamiah, smiling in a shirt adorned with a rainbow-shaded unicorn.

“It’s her first time in school. Last year was all virtual for her,” said Brooks. “[But] I’m excited. She needs to be in person. She needs to socialize. She’s at that age.”

Powel is one of three newly opened school buildings in the district this year.

The school’s former building is already being prepped for use by students at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, a West Philadelphia middle and high school that’s temporarily closed after community members raised safety concerns about an ongoing construction project. Facilities woes are also front of mind at another middle and high school, Masterman, where some parents and staff say they aren’t convinced the district properly remediated asbestos.

Alongside those infrastructure concerns, another recurring issue looms: labor strife.

Students wear face masks outside of their school in Philly
Philadelphia School District students at Samuel Powel Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy Middle School returned to in-person learning on Aug. 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Contracts for the unions representing the city’s teachers and principals are set to expire at the end of the day. There’s little word yet on when the district might reach new deals.

Prolonged contract negotiations are nothing new for Philadelphia’s public schools. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) inked a one-year deal with the district last year that included 2% raises. In the negotiation cycle before that, the union went years without an active contract. Then, however, the PFT did not have the legal authority to strike. Now it does, thanks to a governance change from the School Reform Commission to the Board of Education.

Officials from the district and PFT say negotiations are active and ongoing. In a statement posted to Twitter, the PFT said if the district decides to “pursue an agreement that is not reflective of the work our more than 13,000 members do each day, then we will be discussing next steps with our membership this evening.”

Elementary school students play on the playground
Elementary school students play before the first day of classes in Philadelphia on Aug. 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that PFT president Jerry Jordan sent a letter to members Tuesday saying the union was “on the brink of a strike vote.”

“Negotiations are very active,” said Superintendent William Hite during a Tuesday press gaggle. “We hope to have a resolution soon.”

There are also ongoing negotiations about a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for district staff who work in school buildings.

The city’s board of education recently granted Hite the authority to impose a vaccine requirement. But the details, he said, are still being negotiated with all five of the unions who represent different segments of school staff.

“We hope to have something out no later than next week,” Hite said.

Students wear face masks outside of their school in Philly
Philadelphia School District students at Samuel Powel Elementary School and Science Leadership Academy Aug. 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
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Philadelphia is among the districts that require people to wear face masks in schools. The district also plans to do weekly testing of staff. It does not plan to test asymptomatic students, rebuffing a union request.

The district says it will quarantine close contacts of students or staff when they test positive. Hite said decisions about whether to quarantine entire grades or schools will be made by the city’s Department of Public Health.

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