Philly teachers protest return to classroom plan as officials wait for mediator decision

Teachers hold signs outside Gompers School in protest of the district's plan to return to in-person learning

Teachers protest outside Gompers School against what they say is a rushed return to the classroom without proper safety precautions. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated at 7:40 p.m.

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Philadelphia teachers braved sub-freezing temperatures Monday to stage citywide protests against the school district’s attempt to bring them back to school buildings.

District officials had been demanding some teachers return to school buildings Monday, ahead of a planned return of up to 9,000 young children on Feb. 22. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had refused, citing grave concerns about the quality of ventilation in the school buildings and arguing that any staff asked to come back should be vaccinated against COVID-19 first.

The district had threatened to discipline teachers who did not report for work, but the city intervened to diffuse the showdown Sunday night, allowing teachers to work remotely until a neutral mediator makes a decision on whether school buildings are safe for return.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speak at a protest outside Gompers elementary school.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speak at a protest outside Gompers elementary school. Teachers protested at schools across the district Monday morning against what they say are unsafe conditions for a return to in-person learning. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

On Monday morning, top union leaders and elected officials gathered outside of Samuel Gompers Elementary in Wynnefield to criticize the district’s plan to return students to classrooms for the first time since last March.

“The lives of our students and our educators are at stake,” union president Jerry Jordan said. [The district’s plan] is obscene, and it’s cruel.”

Other speakers included City Councilmembers Derek Green, Helen Gym, and Katherine Gilmore Richardson, State Sen. Vincent Hughes, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Many focused their criticism on the School District of Philadelphia’s ventilation plan, which includes installing over 1,000 window fans in classrooms found to need more airflow according to a district study.

“When I first saw these fans, frankly my first thought was, ‘This is a [Saturday Night Live] parody,’” Weingarten said. “It is mockery, and it is incredibly disrespectful to even think something like this would fly in our communities.”

Experts have said window fans, if used correctly, can help protect against coronavirus transmission, but many teachers have little trust in the safety of city school buildings, given the district’s legacy of deferred and underfunded maintenance.

The conflict is now in a holding pattern, as both sides wait for a decision from mediator Peter Orris, a Chicago-based doctor appointed by the City of Philadelphia.

City Councimember Helen Gym joins teachers and union leaders in front of Samuel Gompers School
City Councilmember Helen Gym joins teachers and union leaders in front of Samuel Gompers School to show her support for teachers who are refusing to return to the classroom. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

On Monday afternoon, District Superintendent William Hite released a statement saying the district had spent about $60 million enacting safety measures that go “above and beyond” the conditions it negotiated last fall as a precondition to returning to classrooms.

“While our teachers and other PFT members are not required to return to schools at this time as we await next steps from the mediator, we continue to encourage them to return to schools so we are prepared to phase in the 9,000 PreK-2 students whose families want and need for their children to resume in-person learning on February 22,” the statement reads.

Earlier, Jerry Jordan declined to say what he would do if Orris decided classrooms were safe.

Asked how long teachers could hold out against the district’s demand they return, Jordan said they will “do what we have to do.”

“This union went on strike for 12 weeks in 1972. We were on strike for 50 days in 1981,” Jordan said. “So I don’t hope that happens. I hope cooler heads prevail.”

Superintendent Dr. William Hite’s call to return to classrooms aligns with city public health officials, as well as guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In October, the union and district signed a memorandum outlining the conditions that needed to be met before students returned to in-person learning. The district says it has met those conditions. The union, however, disagrees — specifically citing ventilation as a problem point. The union also disagrees with the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s decision to allow in-person school in areas with high levels of COVID-19 transmission.

A spokesperson for the City of Philadelphia said Monday that Mayor Jim Kenney is now “directly involved” in the conversations between the district and the union, pushing for a way to get students back into the classroom. Kenney’s administration is also now “in active discussions about the vaccination plan for teachers and other school staff,” spokesperson Lauren Cox said, suggesting they may have an update on that plan soon. Under the current plan, Philly’s teachers may not be fully vaccinated until April or May.

Also on Monday, the city announced it partnering with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to vaccinate teachers, school staff, and other people who work with children in the city.  That effort is expected to begin later this month. However, the partnership does not necessarily mean teachers will get vaccinated any faster, a city spokesperson said.

Kelly Castelli was one of a handful of teachers who joined the protest outside of Gompers Elementary. Bundled up in mittens and a parka, Castelli said, in addition to her safety concerns, she worries that kids who return to the classroom will have a worse learning experience than those who continue to learn remotely.

“They can’t move around. They can’t do anything,” she said. “I want to be with my kids. I miss them. But … the plan that they have, for them to sit on their laptops, is just dumb.”

The protests carried into the evening, as over a hundred people gathered outside school district headquarters in Center City.

Durba Chatterjee, an ESL teacher from Elkin Elementary school, said conditions in some schools have been unacceptable long before COVID-19.

“Our love for our children is taken advantage of by higher ups who care only about their bank accounts, investment portfolios, and they own climb up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Chatterjee.

Shakeda Gaines, president of Philadelphia Home and School Council, walked to the mic holding a window fan by the wire. “You see this? This is death,” said Gaines.

The rally closed with a short celebration over Hite’s message that teachers would not be required to report to classrooms Tuesday, pending the mediator’s judgment.

Dan Reyes, an organizer with the Caucus of Working Educators, said the fight was far from over. “This is not a commitment to not reopen until it’s safe… We have to keep up the pressure… We can win this,” he said.

‘I wouldn’t want that job’

While the School District of Philadelphia remains locked in conflict with the PFT, some city charter schools are steaming ahead with re-opening plans.

Mastery Charter Schools, the largest operator in Philadelphia with more than 11,000 students, plans to bring children in pre-K through second grade back to classrooms on March 1, with other elementary grades following a week later. Middle and high school-age students will follow if Pennsylvania’s coronavirus cases continue to decline.

Mastery’s reopening plan hinges on offering free weekly coronavirus tests to all students and staff who want them. Superintendent Dr. Hite has said the district is pursuing a similar plan, but has not offered an update on it in weeks.

Russell Byers Charter school CEO Carol Domb waves to a parent
Russell Byers Charter school CEO Carol Domb waves to a parent on the first day of in-person learning since November 2020, on Feb. 8 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

KiPP Philadelphia is also planning a March 1 return for kindergarten and first grade students, without a set in-person date for older students.

On Monday, Russell Byers Charter School opened for kindergarten and special education students for the first time since winter break. About half of those eligible opted to return.

Byers CEO Carol Domb was giddy as she greeted students upon arrival at the Center City school, holding the door and waving to parents.

Asked about ventilation concerns, she said the school upgraded its filters and says conditions are safe.

“We spent some money investing in making sure our air quality was where it needed to be before we opened school,” Domb said.

Kindergarten students are spaced out in class at Russell Byers Charter School
Kindergarten teacher Erin Walsh said she hopes that in-person learning continues through the end of the school year. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Domb, who used to be a district principal, said it’s hard to compare the district and charter sectors.

“I can appreciate the difficulty that they’re in,” she said. “We’re very fortunate and blessed, but we have the ability to do it because we are one school.”

Domb said it must be challenging for the district because they have so many students to worry about. She admitted, “I wouldn’t want that job.”

Sade Greenlee dropped off Michael Lawson, a 5-year-old student at Byers. She’s nervous about coronavirus spread, but said, “we can’t keep living in fear, gotta keep pushing forward.”

Activity tables are spaced apart at a Philadelphia charter school
Kindergarten students at Russell Byers Charter School in Center City sit at their own tables during activities. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Lawson’s father was a Philadelphia firefighter who died from cancer a couple of years ago. Greenlee, his guardian, said the school is a place for Lawson to find more strong male figures.

She said it’s hard for her to supervise his virtual schooling. “He don’t get that it’s business time and not play time. He needs that structure,” said Greenlee.

As the school day began, a Byers security guard ushered each student inside. Students then stood in front of a machine to take their temperatures and were directed to abide by decals on the floor that mark six feet throughout the hallways.

Hand sanitizer and mask stations are placed throughout the school. Teachers have the option to use shields on the students’ desks and their personal spaces. Each classroom is a “pod,” where students remain for the entire day, even eating lunch at their desks. If they have to leave the room, a staff member escorts them.

Erin Walsh smiles while wearing a face mask
Erin Walsh is a kindergarten teacher at Russell Byers Charter School in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Byers hired that extra staff to walk with students and to support the virtual learners so the teacher can focus on those in the classroom.

Erin Walsh, a kindergarten teacher at Byers, said she isn’t concerned about COVID-19, while other teachers may feel differently. Walsh said, “I’m not someone who felt like I was in danger coming into the building.”

Walsh found it difficult to keep students’ attention through their screen, so was excited about re-opening and reconnecting.

The school’s transparency and safety plans were key for Walsh’s comfort with returning.

“If there is a concern, we can approach administration very easily and we are definitely heard and they take everything we say into consideration,” said Walsh.

First, second, and third graders at Byers are set to start in-person instruction on Feb. 16.

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