Standoff brews between Philly school district and teachers over return to classrooms

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan (Harvey Finkle/The Notebook)

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan (Harvey Finkle/The Notebook)

The School District of Philadelphia and its staff appear headed toward a school-reopening standoff.

The district, so far, is pushing ahead with plans to bring some school staff back to classrooms in one week so that they can prepare to reopen schools on November 30 for students in grades pre-K-2.

The teachers union opposes the plan, and there’s no sign of either side yielding as COVID-19 cases spike in the city.

“I don’t believe we should gamble with the lives of students and staff,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Asked what the union would do if the district goes through with a plan to bring staff back next Monday, Jordan said simply:

“We’re looking at all our options.”

The district’s original plan was to bring some staff back into buildings on November 9. That was pushed back to November 16 — a delay caused by logistical hiccups, Superintendent William Hite told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

By November 30, some chunk of students in grades pre-K-2 will be learning in person twice a week — at least according to the district. Leaders say they are prioritizing the return of younger students because they will benefit most greatly from in-person instruction and are less likely to transmit the virus.

The district gave parents of students in these younger grades the choice of remaining online or returning to classrooms. The clear majority — about 70% — preferred to keep their children on online, according to Hite.

The district has not, however, released precise figures on parent preference, despite several requests from WHYY.

The union, meanwhile, says the worsening COVID conditions in Philadelphia prevent them from endorsing any return-to-classroom plan.

“Bringing people back into a building at this time is just not as safe,” said Jordan.

Jordan pointed to state guidance that says school districts should remain fully online if there’s “substantial” viral transmission in their community.

Philadelphia does have a “substantial” rate of transmission, per the state’s definition.

Some experts have argued that school systems should prioritize reopening because early evidence suggests schools do not exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 and because students suffer without the academic and social benefits of in-person school. But not all experts agree with that analysis — and the nationwide surge in COVID cases has created new layers of caution.

In Philadelphia, cases began climbing in late October and have risen ever since. On Monday, Philadelphia reported a three-day total of 1,772 new cases — an average of roughly 600 new cases a day. That volume of new daily cases matches highs in April, though many more tests are now being administered.

When the district first attempted to solicit community buy-in for a hybrid learning plan over the summer, the city was averaging less than 150 new cases a day. Officials later backed away from the original hybrid push after stiff community backlash.

In limbo

The district’s latest plan calls for pre-K-2 teachers to return to buildings next Monday. That includes staffers like therapists, nurses, and others who work across grades.

Teachers told WHYY they haven’t been trained on how to use new cameras that will allow them to livestream classroom lessons to students logged on from home. And several said they don’t yet know which of their students have opted for the in-person classes and which have opted to remain online.

Will they be teaching a class for five? A class for 20? It’s unclear.

“We’re trying to figure things out in a very dense cloud,” said Cristina Gutierrez, a kindergarten teacher at Lewis Elkin Elementary in North Philadelphia. “It’s worrisome.”

Gutierrez says she’s heard that about 30 students — or roughly 7% of eligible students — have opted to return to her school. But that’s not an official tally.

“They have us in this limbo,” she said.

Nina Willbach, a pre-K teacher at Southwark School in South Philadelphia, said teachers at her school who had requested medical exemptions so that they could remain virtual have not heard whether those exemptions will be granted.

“And even if you don’t have an explicit medical condition, this is pretty clearly not safe for anyone,” said Willbach. “I know many teachers in my building who’ve said, ‘I haven’t even left my house in weeks.’”

The school district has not said how many staff requested exemptions. And union leaders say they’re also not aware of the exemptions figures.

Gutierrez and Willbach both oppose the plan to bring some staff back into school buildings. And they’re waiting to see what their union will do in advance of next Monday.

“If the union tells us not to go in because it’s not safe, then I will not go in,” said Gutierrez.

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