By Avi Wolfman-Arent | WHYY.org
The School District of Philadelphia is delaying its plan to return some students to classrooms due to ongoing mediation with the teachers union — postponing from Feb. 22 to March 1.
The decision comes amid a dispute with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which opposes returning members to buildings until all are fully inoculated against COVID-19.
The district and the union had agreed to a plan to return to schools in the fall that did not include vaccination requirements. Union leaders say several circumstances changed since making those arrangements, including vaccines becoming available and the state loosening guidance on school reopening.
Teachers are also skeptical of the district’s plan to properly ventilate classrooms, especially in older buildings that have been plagued with other critical infrastructure failures.
A city-appointed mediator has been called in to judge whether the district has fulfilled its part of the agreement.
Superintendent William Hite’s plan includes returning about 9,000 pre-K through grade 2 students to buildings in alternating cohorts for two days of live instruction per week.
“Our youngest students are falling further behind,” said Hite.
Pertinent school staff were supposed to report to buildings on Feb. 8. Many teachers have protested the return. Students in affected grades have been on modified schedules with less instruction time in the interim.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers on Wednesday said that the decision to delay was the “right decision.”
“The Federation’s position that we are unable to verify the safety of buildings for reoccupancy — and in fact we know that many buildings are unsafe for reoccupancy — remains unchanged,” said union President Jerry Jordan in a statement. “We continue to work through many of these issues specifically regarding ventilation with the neutral third party.”
Students in the School District of Philadelphia haven’t had any live instruction since last March, a marked difference compared to many area public and private schools.
Hite said Wednesday that staff needed time to set up classrooms before students returned — and that the ongoing mediation had eaten into that needed time.
“Children need to come to classrooms that are ready to receive them and set up to receive them,” said Hite. “While we have all the safety protocols in place, there are some educators that haven’t been back in classrooms since last March.”
The district’s plan falls in line with guidance from city health officials, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The district also announced Wednesday that its return strategy would include weekly rapid COVID testing for every staff member working on site.
“We will make rapid testing available to all teachers and staff working in our schools to help detect positive COVID-19 cases and prevent the spread of the virus,” Hite said.
The district hopes this is the first move in a gradual return to face-to-face instruction. After K-2 students move into buildings, the district would like to bring back special education students, English language learners, and some students taking vocational courses that require hands-on instruction.
There’s no timeline for when that second phase might begin. District leaders have said nothing yet about the potential return of the larger cohort of students in grades 3 through 12.
Waiting until staff are fully vaccinated would likely push reopening into at least early April. The district is working with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on vaccination distribution.
District officials said that “thousands” of staff will receive invitations Wednesday to schedule a vaccination appointment. First in line will be food-service workers, administrators, and other employees already working in person. After that group, staff slated to return with pre-K through grade 2 students would receive the vaccine.
“Not everyone in the first phase will get an invitation on the same day,” said Larissa Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer. “If you are a staff member working on site and you don’t get an indication today, don’t worry. It is on its way.”
Indications are that staff would start to receive first doses before the end of this month. Data indicates that a first dose provides some level of protection from COVID-19, but full inoculation requires a second dose administered several weeks after the first.