Miles Bryan and Emily Rizzo | WHYY.org
Philadelphia teachers braved sub-freezing temperatures Monday to stage citywide protests against the school district’s attempt to bring them back to school buildings.
District officials had been demanding some teachers return to school buildings Monday, ahead of a planned return of up to 9,000 young children on Feb. 22. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had refused, citing grave concerns about the quality of ventilation in the school buildings and arguing that any staff asked to come back should be vaccinated against COVID-19 first.
The district had threatened to discipline teachers who did not report for work, but the city intervened to diffuse the showdown Sunday night, allowing teachers to work remotely until a neutral mediator makes a decision on whether school buildings are safe for return.
On Monday morning, top union leaders and elected officials gathered outside of Samuel Gompers Elementary in Wynnefield to criticize the district’s plan to return students to classrooms for the first time since last March.
“The lives of our students and our educators are at stake,” union president Jerry Jordan said. [The district’s plan] is obscene, and it’s cruel.”
Other speakers included City Councilmembers Derek Green, Helen Gym, and Katherine Gilmore Richardson, State Sen. Vincent Hughes, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
Many focused their criticism on the School District of Philadelphia’s ventilation plan, which includes installing over 1,000 window fans in classrooms found to need more airflow according to a district study.
“When I first saw these fans, frankly my first thought was, ‘This is a [Saturday Night Live] parody,’” Weingarten said. “It is mockery, and it is incredibly disrespectful to even think something like this would fly in our communities.”
Experts have said window fans, if used correctly, can help protect against coronavirus transmission, but many teachers have little trust in the safety of city school buildings, given the district’s legacy of deferred and underfunded maintenance.
The conflict is now in a holding pattern, as both sides wait for a decision from mediator Peter Orris, a Chicago-based doctor appointed by the City of Philadelphia.
On Monday afternoon, District Superintendent William Hite released a statement saying the district had spent about $60 million enacting safety measures that go “above and beyond” the conditions it negotiated last fall as a precondition to returning to classrooms.
“While our teachers and other PFT members are not required to return to schools at this time as we await next steps from the mediator, we continue to encourage them to return to schools so we are prepared to phase in the 9,000 PreK-2 students whose families want and need for their children to resume in-person learning on February 22,” the statement reads.
Earlier, Jerry Jordan declined to say what he would do if Orris decided classrooms were safe.
Asked how long teachers could hold out against the district’s demand they return, Jordan said they will “do what we have to do.”
“This union went on strike for 12 weeks in 1972. We were on strike for 50 days in 1981,” Jordan said. “So I don’t hope that happens. I hope cooler heads prevail.”
Superintendent Dr. William Hite’s call to return to classrooms aligns with city public health officials, as well as guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.