Stay home on Monday, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers urges its members

The union continues to maintain school district buildings are unsafe for occupancy given COVID-19 concerns. A mediator in the matter was named Friday.

Jerry Jordan has headed the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers since 2007. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Jerry Jordan has headed the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers since 2007. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 4:22 p.m.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has directed its members to stay home on Monday because of COVID-19 concerns.

In a statement, PFT President Jerry Jordan said the district’s school buildings aren’t safe for occupancy.

“I am disgusted that the district would continue forward with a path towards reopening buildings that again puts my dedicated members in harm’s way,” said Jordan.

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According to Superintendent Dr. William Hite’s reopening plan, teachers, and staff who work with children in kindergarten through second grade are due back on Monday, Feb. 8. Children in that age group who are opted into the hybrid plan will return on Feb. 22.

An outpouring of teachers and parents have taken to Twitter with the hashtag “#onlywhenitssafe,” concerned over the reopening plans. The PFT coordinated a public letter-writing campaign, asking Mayor Jim Kenney and city officials to delay in-person learning. So far, community members have sent over 6,000 letters.

In a statement Thursday, Jordan doubled down on the union’s concerns about poor ventilation in classrooms and schools, some of which have no functioning HVAC systems. He said the city has provided neither concrete data nor safe solutions.

The district is currently installing over 1,000 fans in classroom windows to improve air circulation. Jordan said this solution is “offensive.”

“It speaks volumes about the overall approach to reopening buildings at all costs. There’s nothing ‘good faith’ about this,” he said.

Superintendent Hite released a statement Friday afternoon in response to the PFT’s call for teachers to stay home Monday.

“It is deeply disappointing that PFT has directed their members to disregard the district’s plan to return staff to buildings …” Hite said.

He added that this direction from the union goes against “their collective bargaining agreement and the Memorandum of Agreement that PFT reached regarding the reopening of schools just a few months ago.”

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In an email sent to all PFT members Friday afternoon, the district’s representative Larisa Shambaugh, said those who do not show up on Monday “will be subject to disciplinary action.”

City Councilmembers Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks, Derek Green, and Jaimie Gauthier, and state Reps. Rick Krajewski and Chris Rabb released a joint statement Friday calling on the school district to delay reopening.

The officials said the current conditions are unacceptable for a safe reopening, and the consequences will disproportionately affect vulnerable communities. “[The consequences] will be borne in Black and Brown neighborhoods already disproportionately impacted by COVID, by vulnerable families with chronically sick or disabled loved ones, by immigrant families terrified to access medical treatment.”

“We are troubled that for months we have heard complaints from hundreds of parents, school staff, principals, and community members about the lack of communication and clarity regarding air quality standards, testing protocols, vaccination prioritization, improvements in virtual learning, and more,” their statement said.

In an interview Friday, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said that even pre-pandemic, many of the district’s facilities were an injustice. She said that now, “we need to take extra care. A quarter of the facilities that we’re talking about don’t even have functioning mechanical ventilation systems.”

Gauthier said it’s vital for the district to be transparent with the community, “It’s important for us to take the time to work with the public, work with the teachers.”

On Wednesday, Jordan called on the city to elect a third-party mediator, an option agreed upon last fall. The mediator will hear evidence from both the union and the school district and decide whether schools are safe for occupancy.

On Friday, Philadelphia’s Office of Labor announced the name of the mediator, Dr. Peter Orris, a medical doctor from Chicago who also has a master’s degree in public health.

According to the Department of Labor, Orris is currently reviewing the evidence from both parties. Both groups and the mediator will meet this weekend to discuss reopening plans.

Jordan said this isn’t about teachers wanting to stay virtual.

“My members want to be in school buildings doing the job they love — when it is safe to do so. And right now, it’s not.”

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