Thousands of educators in the School District of Philadelphia taught outside in freezing weather on Feb. 8 to protest the district’s reopening plan, which required certain staff members to report to school in person for the first time in almost a year.
Teachers cite poor ventilation, lack of access to vaccines and poor communication from the district as their main concerns about going back.
“Transmission is still really high in the Philadelphia area,” said Shira Cohen, a Jewish math teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences in North Philadelphia who supported the staff actions. “We’re still in the middle of a surge.”
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. addressed the reopening plan in a Facebook Live announcement on Feb. 10.
“This has been a difficult week for our school district,” he said. “I understand and respect that there are various points of view about how and when schools should open. As superintendent, nonetheless, safety has been and continues to be my No. 1 priority in preparing to return staff and students to buildings. Any rumor or statement claiming otherwise is just plain false.”
Cohen said it would be irresponsible to open schools before vaccines were widely available to staff, and noted that students and their families would remain vulnerable even if their teachers were vaccinated.
“Students could still bring the virus home to their family members, many of whom might be immunocompromised,” she said.
Joan Fanwick, a Jewish special education teacher at George W. Nebinger Elementary School in South Philadelphia, said the district reached out to say there would be consequences if kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers did not report to the classroom when called. Her union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, then announced that there would not be disciplinary action, but there was no direct follow-up from the district. Teachers were ultimately not mandated to report to schools due to an arbitration agreement announced by Mayor Jim Kenney’s office.
Fanwick was frustrated that the district directed her toward social media for information about the reopening rather than reaching out to staff directly.
“That is not where I feel I should be getting information from my employer,” she said. “They have my email address. They knew exactly how to email me this week when they wanted to let us know about disciplinary actions. But on Facebook Live, they talked about how every teacher returning would get tested once a week, and I didn’t get an email about that.”
Many of the district buildings lack functional heat, ventilation and cooling systems, Cohen said. She was told that the district planned to install window fans to increase ventilation. But that would make the classrooms cold, and some windows don’t open at all.
Fanwick could not find the ventilation reports the district claimed to have filed.
“If you look in the Google Drive folder on the school district’s website that claims to have all the ventilation reports, if you actually open the one for my school, it does not have any testing, it just has an estimate of what the testing should say,” she said.
School District spokesperson Monica Lewis said the reports did not look incomplete to her, but was looking into it, as well as the teachers’ other complaints the Exponent wrote to her about. She was unable to respond fully by press time.
Amit Schwalb, a Jewish science teacher at W.B. Saul High School in Roxborough, said previous experiences with loose asbestos in his classroom made him skeptical about whether district buildings really had been made safe.
He stands by his union, PFT, and its decision that safety conditions have not been met. The organization is waiting to hear the ruling of Dr. Peter Orris, chief of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois, who the city has brought in as a mediator.
Fanwick is aware that many proponents of reopening schools argue that disabled and marginalized students like hers are disproportionately disadvantaged by a lack of in-person instruction. She thinks their physical health and safety should remain the top priority.
“A lot of times, there’s an ableist stretch of that,” she said. “There’s a thought, ‘Oh, OK, they need the education more. And they need to conform to society.’ And they can only do that if they’re in school, and learning how to conform to society to make it easier on the people around them. But a lot of times, we’re not thinking about what’s best for them, both health-wise, and educationally.”
Schwalb thinks the fact that Black and brown families across the country have opted to keep their children at home at higher rates than white families is being ignored in arguments that marginalized students who rely more on school services should be returned to the classroom as soon as possible. On Feb. 1, The New York Times reported higher rates of Black families opting for remote learning than white families in Chicago; New York City; Oakland, California; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tennessee; and Dallas.
He said the disruption of changing learning models at this point in the school year will be detrimental to students, who he believes often need consistency and routine to thrive. He has heard reports of staffing issues and decreased instructional time from friends and colleagues in other districts that have adopted hybrid models.
Schwalb was among the teachers conducting class outside during the Feb. 8 protest, although he hasn’t been asked to return to his building yet. A friend who owns a restaurant donated outdoor heaters, and he rented a pickup truck to distribute them. Students, families and neighbors also donated heaters and generators.
“It was just really empowering for me to see that, and that’s what being in a union and what social change is all about,” he said.
He has reflected on the work of Jewish labor activists like Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, whose death at 67 was announced the same day as the protest. He read her bat mitzvah d’var Torah and realized she was someone who loved and lived Jewish values, from her personal interactions to her movement for educational equity.
“That’s a life of Torah, a life of not just studying and learning and loving Torah, but really living it. And I aspire to live up to that call,” he said.