Showdown over return to classrooms in Philly to be resolved by mediator

The union says it’s deeply concerned about ventilation issues in school district buildings, many of which don’t have modern HVAC systems.

Philadelphia School District headquarters

Philadelphia School District headquarters on North Broad Street. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Philadelphia’s teachers union says school buildings aren’t safe for occupancy, setting the stage for a showdown ahead of a scheduled return to classrooms for some staffers Monday.

On Wednesday night, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said he had called on the city to appoint a third-party mediator to arbitrate the dispute, an option made available to both the union and the school district by a memorandum of agreement they signed last fall. The mediator — who will be appointed by Philadelphia’s Office of Labor — will hear evidence presented by both parties, and need to quickly make a ruling on whether it’s safe to return to school buildings during the pandemic.

Jordan said he was still deeply concerned about ventilation issues in school district buildings, some of which don’t have functioning HVAC systems. The district is currently installing over a thousand window fans in classrooms to increase air flow, something that has drawn public outcry but experts said could reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. 

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In an interview Thursday, Jordan said he didn’t think the fans were an adequate solution.

“Members have been writing and calling with concerns about, on a cold day like today, will that cold air come into their rooms and will they be freezing in the classrooms?” he said.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said Thursday that the union’s request for mediation would not delay the return for some teachers Monday.

“It could possibly delay the return of students later,” Hite said. “But it will not delay our expectations for teachers to be in classrooms and they would only be in classrooms by themselves.”

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The meditator will be on a tight schedule: staff who work with children in pre-K through second grade are due back to buildings Monday, with children in that age group allowed to return on Feb. 22 if their families opted for a return in a fall survey.

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.

But many parents and other school staff are also wary about returning. On Thursday, 119 School District of Philadelphia nurses released a letter calling on the district to delay reopening buildings until all school-based staff are vaccinated.

A City of Philadelphia spokesperson said in an email Thursday that the city is “in conversations with a potential mediator and can share more once that person is confirmed.” In his Wednesday email to members, Jordan said the union was preparing for a hearing in the case “this week.”

Many teachers and parents have little trust in the safety of School District of Philadelphia buildings, given the district’s legacy of deferred and underfunded maintenance. It’s also bungled some of the maintenance it has performed recently. Rushed construction at Benjamin Franklin High School exposed students to asbestos and caused $50 million — five times what was initially budgeted.

Jordan referenced that “debacle” on Thursday as an example of why so many of his members were skeptical of the district’s claims that they would be safe to return.

“The district does not have a great history of maintaining their school buildings well,” he said.

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