Philly teachers union calls for week of virtual learning to bolster COVID measures

The president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says schools should have N95 masks, good ventilation, and more COVID-19 testing.

Rows of school buses

Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, Friday, July 10, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

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The head of the city’s teachers union is calling for the School District of Philadelphia to go remote temporarily so that it has time to ensure COVID-19 mitigation strategies are in place before students and staff return from the holiday break.

“Educators believe that children learn best when they’re in the classroom,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). “Educators do their jobs best when they’re in the classroom with the children, face to face.”

But he said classrooms also need to be safe learning environments. As COVID-19 cases surge in the region, driven by the new omicron variant, Jordan believes the district needs to pivot to virtual instruction for a week while it makes sure its safety measures are up to snuff.

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He sent a letter to Superintendent Dr. William Hite asking for the week-long shift to virtual learning.

In an interview with WHYY News, Jordan said he is calling for the district to ensure that each school has enough N95 masks for students and staff — following advice from health experts to upgrade to heavier-duty masks during the omicron surge — and that classrooms have proper ventilation. He would also like to see weekly COVID-19 tests for students.

PFT issued a survey over the weekend and about 1,100 of the union’s 13,000 members said they tested positive for COVID-19 over winter break, Jordan said, with about 2,000 cases in member households.

“We don’t want schools to become a spreader environment,” he said. “What I ask for is a pause for a week so that the district will be given the time … to be able to get all of the strategies that the doctors are saying are necessary in place, so that when children and staff return to the buildings that they are going to be as safe as they possibly can be.”

The School District of Philadelphia currently plans to reopen in person tomorrow, said spokesperson Monica Lewis.

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She said the district is continuing to monitor the data, but at this point “all signs show that we’re able to open school safely for in-person learning tomorrow and that’s our plan.”

Some districts have voiced concerns about staff absences, driven by the rise in COVID-19 cases. Central Bucks School District, in Bucks County, canceled classes on Monday, citing both the weather and “staffing shortages associated with the omicron-related spike in COVID-19 cases.”

Lewis acknowledged that potential challenge.

“If there are schools that have significant staffing issues, the plan will change for those schools,” she said. “But in terms of a district-wide decision, we believe that we will be able to open our schools tomorrow for in-person learning.”

The PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia released a statement on Friday supporting the return to in-person learning after winter break.

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