A righteous fight in Philadelphia for a safe reopening

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The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is pushing back hard for a safe reopening of schools in a district plagued by long-standing concerns with asbestos and other environmental hazards. On Feb. 8, the union organized a massive day of action in which hundreds of educators signaled their concerns by teaching remotely from inside tents and parked cars and right outside school buildings. Joined by AFT President Randi Weingarten, several Philadelphia City Council members and many other elected officials, they rallied and waved signs to demand safe teaching and learning conditions for themselves and their students.

Teachers in Philly with Randi Weingarten

The action was a successful show of solidarity that resulted in two key wins: Mayor Jim Kenney announced a partnership with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to vaccinate educators, and the district backed off its requirement that educators enter unsafe school buildings.

“It’s a critical first step, and is a huge testament to our collective advocacy and solidarity,” PFT President Jerry Jordan wrote in a Facebook post to members last night.

The Feb. 8 action was the latest move in what has become an increasingly bitter fight between the district and the union. The previous week, citing teachers’ lack of trust in district officials, Jordan called for a neutral third-party to assess whether school buildings are in fact safe and told his members to continue to work remotely the following Monday and not go into schools. In response, the city announced it had chosen a mediator, Dr. Peter Orris, who holds a master’s degree in public health and is currently reviewing the situation. In October, the School District of Philadelphia and the union signed a memorandum of understanding establishing the specific terms of reopening. As outlined in the agreement, the union could call for a third party to intervene if it believed health and safety conditions had not been met.

Superintendent William Hite had previously announced that 2,000 pre-K through second-grade educators were due back in schools Feb. 8, and that those who did not return would face disciplinary action, an edict that the union found dangerous and unconscionable. About 9,000 children have chosen to attend in-person school two days each week beginning Feb. 22.

The furor over reopening increased last week after photos of window fans, mounted on wood planks and installed in schools to improve ventilation went viral on social media. A recent news article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that district officials had announced plans to install 1,100 fans and that in some instances they were “the same sort of window units you would buy for your home at a big-box store.”

“What we’re doing here today is basically saying there’s a line in the sand,” Weingarten told the crowd that rallied at Franklin S. Edmonds Elementary School, one of four school sites she visited “We need ventilation systems that work.”

Throughout her visits with educators outside their schools in Philadelphia, Weingarten emphasized the three Vs: upholding our core values of protecting kids, implementing plans to vaccinate educators and fixing ventilation systems. She shared that when Jordan told her about the district’s plan to use fans, she thought it was a joke. But neither she nor educators were laughing at the rally, where signs mocked the district’s solution: “A fan is not a plan,” read one poster held aloft in the crowd.

“Thank you for standing up for what is right, for the safety of our students and for you,” said Jordan, who has fought for basic health provisions in school buildings for years, in a district notorious for its asbestos problems—and lack of abatement. “We are going to continue to fight to make sure that our schools are safe.”

Council member Kendra Brooks echoed that sentiment. “We cannot in good faith allow our teachers and students to go back into buildings that are unsafe, exposing them to conditions that they could take back home to their families.”

A former teacher himself and the son of a retired teacher, council member Isaiah Thomas called for every educator to have access to the vaccine before returning to a school building. And state Rep. Chris Rabb called teachers frontline workers who have been asked to sacrifice too much. “We do not want anyone to sacrifice their lives, their mental health, their professionalism, for folks who have not figured this out right.”

Courtney Sabo, the school counselor at Edmonds, agreed. “Our main goal is to make sure that the children are safe and that we’re safe as well,” she said. “We do hope that the district can hear our voice and that some change will actually happen.”

[Jennifer Dubin]