Philly teachers union, City Council member lose their cool over early dismissals

Students walk to school in Philadelphia. (AP file photo)

Students walk to school in Philadelphia. (AP file photo)

For the fourth time in the the first seven days of the school year, Philadelphia public schools will close early Wednesday due to heat.

With high temperatures expected to reach the low 90s yet again, the School District of Philadelphia will dismiss students at noon. The district decided to keep schools open all day on Tuesday despite a forecast for higher temperatures than Wednesday, prompting backlash from the city’s teachers union.

The union also criticized district officials for starting classes a week earlier than usual this year in an attempt to pack more learning days into the early part of the calendar. The district dismissed students early three times last week due to heat, and had planned another half day on the schedule.

Critics can’t blame the calendar for Wednesday’s early dismissal, though. The school year in Philadelphia’s traditional public schools typically starts the day after Labor Day, which, this year, brought mid-90s heat to the region.

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Advocates and lawmakers have seized on the string of early dismissals to highlight the capital needs of urban districts with aging infrastructure.

After Pittsburgh decided to close schools early on Tuesday, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office tweeted out that his city’s school buildings are, on average, 87 years old.

Philadelphia’s buildings are slightly newer, averaging about 67 years in age. But big problems persist. In 2017, the district estimated it had a deferred maintenance backlog that amounted to about $4.5 billion, and only about one quarter of Philadelphia’s traditional public school buildings have central air.

“It is impossible to believe that, in 2018, that our children’s learning in the city of Philadelphia is held captive right now because of the conditions of our buildings,” said Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym.

Gym’s office calculated it would cost $4 million to ensure every Philadelphia public school classroom had at least a window-mounted air-conditioning unit. Installing all those devices, though, could tax the city’s electrical grid in certain sections, Gym said. She’d like to convene city officials, district leaders, and PECO to determine the cost and feasibility of equipping all classrooms with some form of air conditioning.

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