Teachers planning to rally against school reopening

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan speaks at a protest in 2014.
PHOTO: Metro File

Philadelphia public school teachers, in a show of resistance, are planning to demonstrate Monday morning in front of elementary schools that were supposed to open their doors for the first time since March.

Those supporting pre-K to 2nd grade students have been told to report to school buildings Monday, in preparation for the return of in-person classes Feb. 22.

But many educators and their union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, maintain that schools aren’t safe to reopen yet, citing ventilation concerns.

The School District of Philadelphia’s plan to use window fans to boost airflow in more than 1,000 classrooms inflamed tensions between officials and teachers last week.

PFT President Jerry Jordan on Friday instructed members to continue teaching remotely, a move Superintendent William Hite characterized as a violation of the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

Pre-K through 2nd grade teachers who don’t show up Monday will be “subject to disciplinary action,” the district told employees in an email Friday.

Staff, including those assigned to higher grade levels, intend to gather Monday morning in front of elementary schools to show solidarity, multiple sources with knowledge of the plans told Metro.

They will continue teaching their virtual classes, possibly from inside their cars to avoid bitter cold temperatures.

Several members of City Council and a union representing public school principals have spoken up in support of the teachers’ concerns.

Meanwhile, a third-party adjudicator is reviewing PFT and district documents after the union triggered a mediation process through a memorandum of agreement.

The document, signed by both sides last year, provides a list of conditions for any reopening during the pandemic. Union leaders believe the district hasn’t met those criteria.

As stimulated by the agreement, the Mayor’s Office of Labor picked the mediator, and they selected Peter Orris, a Chicago-based doctor who specializes in environmental and occupational medicine.

No ruling had been issued at the time Metro went to press.

“We hope the parties abide by the findings and recommendations of the mediator since this is precisely why such a provision was included in the agreement,” Lauren Cox, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said.

Philadelphia schools superintendent William Hite said he was “deeply disappointed” to learn of the PFT’s advice to teachers not to come into school buildings. Metro File Photo

Last week, Hite said the mediation process could only delay the return of students, not teachers. Jordan disagreed with that understanding of the MOA.

“Other than sheer cruelty and a callous disregard for the lives of educators and school staff, I can’t think of another reason to push forward with a reckless plan to reopen unsafe buildings for thousands of staff on Monday,” Jordan said in a statement.

He added that his members are “outraged,” “disgusted” and “scared for their lives.”

Hite noted that many employees, including custodial and maintenance staff, have been coming into school buildings for months. The PFT’s decision to advise teachers to stay home “perpetuates inequities that we find unacceptable,” he said in a statement.

“What is more troubling is that this action directly impacts our efforts to support the more than 9,000 PreK to second grade families who want their children to return to school buildings for in-person learning,” he added.

About 9,000 district employees, including 2,000 teachers, are supposed to show up for in-person work this week.

Robin Cooper, who leads the principals union, the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, wrote in a letter Friday to Hite and Mayor Jim Kenney that staff should continue working remotely until the district’s ventilation reports receive a proper vetting.

She called the fan installation plan “an embarrassment,” saying, “It is appalling to know that our students were not deemed worthy of much greater investment to ensure their health and safety.”

CASA, like the PFT, has also advocated for school personnel to have access to the coronavirus vaccine.

Hite has repeatedly said the district does not consider immunizations necessary to bring back students, though some lawmakers have called on city officials to establish a system to inoculate teachers.

“Our schools should not reopen until there is a third-party assessor who deems the facilities safe, and there is a plan to ensure all returning educators and school staff can be vaccinated,” said Councilwoman Katherine Gilmore Richardson.

Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, who chairs council’s education committee, argued school workers must be prioritized for vaccination “immediately.”

“We must reopen safely and cautiously,” she tweeted

School employees are included in Phase 1B of the city’s vaccination roll-out, but they are behind people 75 and older and other essential workers, such as police officers and transit workers.

This is the district’s third attempt at reopening. Previous tries were scuttled following a backlash from teachers and families and rising COVID-19 cases.

Under the current plans, pre-K-2nd students whose families registered for the hybrid model in November will come into school for in-person classes two days a week.

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