Philly schools to remain open if SEPTA strikes

A bus leaves the Midvale depot in Nicetown

A bus leaves the Midvale depot in Nicetown. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The School District of Philadelphia announced Thursday that schools will remain open during a potential SEPTA strike. The transit workers’ contract expires Sunday and the union has already authorized the ability to initiate a work stoppage.

Superintendent William Hite said schools should remain open to provide students with a “sense of community and support services that they need for their social, emotional, and academic well-being.”

The district had previously sent communications to parents and staff asking them to prepare for the possibility of a return to virtual education if a strike occurred.

On Thursday, Hite tied the reason for staying open with the rise of gun violence in the city, “Now more than ever, our schools are safe havens for thousands of students who are experiencing the very real impacts of increasing gun violence and other traumas impacting our communities.”

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The district said it is not equipped with enough drivers to transport students to school who are not already assigned to a yellow bus route.

For students who cannot attend in-person due to the SEPTA strike, they are expected to log into Google Classroom and complete assignments on their own. The district is not offering a hybrid learning option. If the strike is a barrier to student attendance, it won’t count against their records, Hite later confirmed.

All staff are also expected to attend school on their regular schedules. The district said this decision was based on district-wide survey results revealing that the majority of employees can find alternate ways to work.

New safety initiative

At a press conference earlier Thursday, the district announced new plans to help keep students safe amid historically high rates of gun violence in the city.

In a pilot program hoped to be launched by the end of the year, the “Safe Path” initiative will pair community organizations with four high schools highly impacted by gun violence.

It will train community members in trauma informed care to create safe passage to and from school.

Supporting students on the perimeter of the schools, the community members will be unarmed, but equipped with radios and safety vests to ensure students know who they are.

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After more than 450 murders this year — some of which occurring near schools during the day — officials say students are scared to go to school right now.

Chief Safety Officer Kevin Bethel believes having adults who already know the community and the children in the neighborhood will make a positive impact on students’ behavior.

“The hope is that we have those individuals who live in those communities, who work in those communities, who know our children, those are the ones who engage our kids,” said Bethel, “And just their presence alone can have a significant impact on their behavior and those who want to come and do harm in that space. ”

The district hopes the program will begin before the end of this school year at four different Philadelphia high schools: Motivation High School, Roxborough High School, Abraham Lincoln High School, and William L. Sayre High School.

Some were chosen for proximity to violence, others for issues such as traffic safety.

Last Friday, a student shot himself in the leg in a high school in West Philadelphia, raising even more fear amongst students and families. It was the third time in two weeks that a Philadelphia student was shot in or near a school.

Bethel said he is in shock about the amount of gun violence in the city. “I love these kids. I love this city. I took this job because I wanted to protect these kids. I never thought I’d be protecting them from gun fire,” said Bethel. “I definitely would push all of our city leaders to take a hard look as we watch this violence trickle down to our children. At some point we have to make a decision, how much more will we take?”

Bethel said the city needs to continue to look at the roots of the violence.

“We are in very dangerous territory, and we have been in that space for a while, and so that is the question that other folks have to step up and answer, how does an individual get a gun and bring it into our system?”

“The reality is we all, our elected leaders, our school leaders, our community leaders, our parents, all of us, have a duty and a responsibility to make our schools safe.”

The district will spend $725,000 over the next three years towards developing the program.

Bethel hopes to be able to pay individuals who sign up, and they will work in collaboration with the Philadelphia Police Department.

Bethel said he was inspired by Chicago’s ‘Safe Passage’ Program, which has shown to curb violence without police. Another program called “Dads on Duty” in a Louisiana high school, reminiscent of the Safe Path’s program, went viral last week.

“I want to caution that in Chicago they spent 30 million dollars,” said Bethel, “So that’s unrealistic that we are totally going to replicate what Chicago has done…but we will be very strategic.”

The district plans to grow the program over time, and focus on more schools that are impacted by violence using data-driven information. Bethel said they will initiate conversations with community leaders and school leaders to figure out what each school needs, and which community organizations to work with.

Bethel said he plans to work with the Philadelphia Anti-Drug Anti-Violence Network to be able to be “nimble” and move to support other schools in urgent need, if they are not already covered by the district’s program.

Separately, the district is also increasing the number of “safety zones” around schools. A heavier Philadelphia police presence will start on Monday, in 25 zones that cover 38 schools.

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