‘We don’t have basic resources’: Philly parents share concerns about start of school year

Carnell students and parents entering the schoolyard on Thursday.

Carnell students and parents entering the schoolyard. (Emily Rizzo/WHYY)

Weeks into the school year, Philadelphia parents are questioning whether the district can meet their children’s “basic needs” amid ongoing complaints about staff shortages, overflowing trash, unreliable bussing and, in one case, a food shortage at a Southwest Philadelphia school last week.

“We don’t have basic resources like food and transportation, and that’s not even taking into account curriculum, how students are passing their classes, if they’re actually retaining the information,” Saudia Durrant said during a virtual meeting for public school parents on Tuesday night.

“New shiny things are prioritized over the basic necessities of our children like heating, cooling, no lead, asbestos, and mold in the school,” said parent Aileen Callaghan.

The virtual meeting was organized by Philadelphia City Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks, Philadelphia Home and School Council, Our City Our Schools, and Parents United for Public Education.

It was an opportunity for parents to connect and compare notes about the start of the school year, which has been off to a rocky start — something school leaders including Superintendent William Hite acknowledged at a recent school board meeting.

“Bus delays, no shows, or dropping people off or kicking the kids off of the bus at the wrong stop, why is this a thing?” asked event organizer Shakeda Gaines, head of PHSC. “It’s because our bus drivers that were here, prior to [COVID] are gone. So how do we attract that back?”

At the meeting, parents split into breakout groups to discuss concerns, then shared common themes with the larger group — which at one point, topped 130 participants, including teachers and education advocates.

In addition to worries about transportation and trash pickup, many parents shared a desire for more transparency from the school district, including more information about how leaders are spending federal pandemic relief funds.

There was also uneasiness about COVID safety measures in schools.

Teacher Cheryl McFadden said her breakout group of parents and teachers lamented the lack of contract tracing, testing, and COVID test materials for nurses.

Another central theme was the twin epidemics of COVID-19 and gun violence, and the need for more mental health support for students experiencing trauma.

“We have to understand that these children have lost friends and family members to COVID and they’re also losing friends and family members to gun violence,” said parent Samia Bolling. “We talk about school being a safe place for children and it seems like it’s not right now.”

The parent meeting came a day after Hite, 60, announced he will step down in August 2022 when his contract expires.

For many of the issues raised, district officials have blamed staffing shortages due to a pandemic-induced labor market crunch that’s made hiring and retaining a public-sector workforce much more difficult. 

Earlier Tuesday, discussing the end of his tenure, Hite showed frustration with the media for its coverage of problems in the district, suggesting unequal scrutiny of surrounding districts.

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