Philly school board backtracks on reopening plans
Worried about the safety of children like these, teachers and parents forced the Philadelphia Board of Education to vote 7-1 not to reopen brick-and-mortar schools in September. | LM Otero/AP

PHILADELPHIA—Listening to parents, teachers, school administrators and their unions—all worried about the safety of the kids as well as themselves—the Philadelphia Board of Education voted 7-1 not to reopen brick-and-mortar schools in September.

Instead, it accepted the superintendent’s compromise plan to delay reopening until November 17, have teachers teach the first semester through the Internet, zoom, videoconferencing, tablets and other electronic communications, and then reopen in a limited way for the second semester, right around Thanksgiving.

Even then, parents scared for their kids’ safety in brick-and-mortar school buildings where crowding could make community spread of the coronavirus easy, could choose to keep the kids home and have them continue such distance learning.

The board’s decision on July 30 was a win for the impassioned protests of Teamsters Local 502, which represents 700 Philly principals, counselors and administrators, and Teachers/AFT Local 1776, which represents 13,000 teachers and support staffers.

The superintendent’s original plan to reopen the schools starting late this month showed Philly officials “are more concerned with rebuilding the economy than protecting the lives of children,” Local 502 President Robin Cooper told board members at an impassioned and crowded open zoom board meeting one week before.

“Our members are terrified, and so am I,” added Local 1776 President Jerry Jordan.

The Philadelphia backtracking is also a win in teachers’ and administrators’ unions national campaign to prevent brick-and-mortar schools from reopening too fast, despite the coronavirus pandemic. Such fast reopening is a top cause of right-wing GOP President Donald Trump and his anti-union, anti-teacher, anti-student of color Education Secretary, Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, a GOP big giver.

But school districts in Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere have delayed and deferred reopening. Chicago hemmed and hawed and finally retreated from doing so immediately. Miami-Dade is suing Florida to prevent a too-soon reopening plan. Texas teachers’ unions are considering suing the state, too.

The notable exception now is New York City, site of the biggest outbreak of the virus in the spring. But now it’s been curbed there and community transmission cut.

In Philly, leaders of both unions, plus parents, had besieged the board’s virtual meeting, upset. They had good reason to worry.

As of midnight on August 13, 5.255 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic was officially declared on March 13, and 167,253 have died, according to the most-authoritative source, Johns Hopkins University. That includes 31,910 cases, 26th among the nation’s 3,000-plus counties, in Philadelphia and 1,709 deaths (15th).

“We do not believe school district personnel should have to potentially teach students to death, and no, this is not speaking figuratively. Rather, it is a literal statement that underscores our very real concerns for our students, parents, school personnel and ourselves,” Cooper said.

“Despite scientific evidence and CDC recommendations regarding social distancing which clearly state that virtual schooling is the safest option, the School District of Philadelphia’s Board of Education and Superintendent decided to ignore the scientific evidence and move forward with an ambiguous and ill-conceived plan. It’s a plan that raises more questions than offers answers and unilaterally favors in-person learning despite the dangers attached to implementing such a design.”

The district’s original plan kept saying the schools would open, with fewer students per classroom, “where feasible.”

“That just doesn’t cut it,” Jordan shot back.

“Believe me, educators want to be in schools, supporting our students face to face, as long as it is safe. And that’s not selfish—it’s human. But students and staff cannot be asked to jeopardize their lives and the lives of their families by passively accepting a plan that is, as it is currently written, entirely insufficient and lacks absolutely non-negotiable safeguards.”

Jordan told the board “PFT released a series of requirements for school reopening rooted in protecting our young people and educators. And number one is virus tracking,” and low rates of positive results for new coronavirus cases, and low rates of having the virus jump from person to person.

“The personal protective equipment provisions are absurd. To supply employees with one ‘complimentary’ cloth mask per year, with only some teachers receiving face shields and masks, is insulting. Further, the lack of specialized PPE for our teachers, nurses, and support staff who work with our students with complex physical needs is reckless.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.