HomeHome Page FeaturedAre public schools safe to reopen?

Are public schools safe to reopen?

Laura H. Carnell Elementary School faculty want to return to classrooms, but only if it is safe.

The School District of Philadelphia hasn’t had any in-person learning since last March, though that is scheduled to end in two weeks.

The school district plans to open schools on Feb. 22 for some 9,000 pupils in pre-kindergarten through second grade whose parents previously said they supported the move back to in-person learning. The kids would attend school two days a week and learn virtually the other three days.

The district asked teachers in those grades to go back to school on Monday for two weeks of preparation leading up to the reopening.

But Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan told his members to not report due to safety concerns, particularly in century-old buildings. On Monday, Jordan joined American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in visiting four schools in a show of solidarity for a safe reopening plan for school buildings.

Meanwhile, teachers at other schools stood outside buildings holding signs.

At Laura H. Carnell Elementary School, at Devereaux Avenue and Frontenac Street in Oxford Circle, K-2 faculty — including teaching, counseling and nursing staff — stood on an icy sidewalk holding signs such as, “A fan is not a plan” and “Safe to learn or no return,” with the hashtag “plannotfan.”

“We want to be back,” said Amanda Penge, a fifth-grade teacher who is the PFT building representative at Carnell.

Laura H. Carnell Elementary School staff gathered Monday morning outside the school to insist on safer classrooms.

But Penge, holding a sign that read, “Fans are for bleachers. They won’t save our teachers,” said teachers should not return until the ventilation at school buildings is fixed properly and all staffers receive the coronavirus vaccine.

At Carnell, teachers complain of no ventilation in bathrooms and a mice problem. They believe the school district hasn’t managed money well, compared to suburban districts, pointing to $600,000 spent renovating executive offices. A $20 window fan in each classroom is not a plan, they said.

PFT members seem unified.

“We have nobody in the building,” Penge said.

Penge said teachers are working from home, with the virtual school day going from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Students log on using their own computers or Chromebooks issued by the school district.

The remote learning is going well, with attendance high, according to Penge.

“I’m teaching the same curriculum,” she said.

Despite teachers demanding vaccines, Biden administration-appointed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky said educators can safely return to classrooms without being vaccinated. The administration, though, has ignored her recommendation.

Teachers are getting support from the Fund our Facilities Coalition, which has written a letter to Superintendent William Hite and Mayor Jim Kenney asking them to remedy the building concerns. The letter was signed by, among others, state Sen. Tina Tartaglione, state Rep. Joe Hohenstein and Philadelphia AFL-CIO president Pat Eiding.

Staff at Laura H. Carnell Elementary School demand safety before returning to the building.

As for Hite, he issued a statement on Monday that read, in part, “The return of staff to buildings reflects 11 months of careful and science-based preparation by thousands of District staff who have been working tirelessly in our schools to ensure every school has a wide range of safety layers in place as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Health Departments.”

Those layers include EPA-approved cleaning products; new classroom and bathroom setups to ensure social distancing; maximum occupancy and safety signs throughout; pre-screening protocols for students and adults; inventories of PPE for staff and students to support mandatory mask wearing and facial covering while in schools; Plexiglas partitions in offices; and touchless hand sanitizer stations and hydration stations in hallways.

All of these safety measures and enhancements, Hite said, go above and beyond the six conditions that the PFT negotiated and agreed to in a Memorandum of Agreement for the safe return of staff to school buildings.

“The science from the CDC is clear that when proper safety precautions are in place, the risk of transmission is low,” Hite said.

The issue is in mediation. ••

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