by Sue Ann Rybak
The city introduced its plan to get students back to school
in the fall, but many parents and teachers think there’s still far too much
uncertainty to do so …
by Sue Ann Rybak
The city introduced its plan to get students back to school in the fall, but many parents and teachers think there’s still far too much uncertainty to do so safely.
Jerry Roseman, director of environmental science and occupational safety and health for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the School District of Philadelphia’s (SDP) plan to reopen schools entitled School Year 2020-2021: Advancing Education Safely, lacks key information needed to safely reopen schools in the Fall.
Under the SDP’s plan, all students with complex needs or in the pre-k program will receive in-person education four days a week (Monday through Thursday.) Students in K-12 will receive in-person learning two days a week either on a Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday model to reduce the number of students in the facility and allow for social distancing. On Fridays, all students will participate in online digital learning. Families and students who feel uncomfortable with the hybrid model can opt to enroll in a Digital Academy, which will be entirely online.
Under the plan, all students and staff are required to wear face coverings or masks, adhere to social distancing and wash or sanitize their hands frequently.
Roseman voiced concerns about the district's cleaning and ventilation plan. The district’s reopening plan states it will increase outdoor airflow and “Improve central air and other HVAC filtration to the highest level achievable, when feasible.”
The average age of the district’s public school facilities is over 66 years old, and most of the schools in the district do not have ANY central air conditioning.
“And the schools that do have them, many of their ventilation systems are severely compromised,” Roseman said.
In fact, he said in the district’s Facilities Condition Assessment (FCA) four years ago, stated the district had $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance, repairs, and replacement needs.
Roseman said a large percentage of those repairs were related to ventilation and windows.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philly Healthy Schools coalition stated that “decades of under-investment” have resulted in students, teachers, and staff being exposed to “lead in paint and drinking water, asbestos, mold, rodent and pest infestations, and lack of proper climate control.”
“If you know what the current situation has been with the school district ventilation systems, components, and windows, you would quickly realize that there is no way you can have those kinds of improvements, let alone the normal effective operation that would destroy COVID-19,” he said.
He said even something as simple as opening windows to increase outdoor airflow is also a problem.
After a substitute teacher had her three fingers amputated by a broken window in the 1980s, the district decided to bolt windows leaving only two operable windows in a room or place black iron guards on them, which restricts them from opening more than several inches.
Germantown resident Eleanor Dukes, 42, said, making students and teachers wear masks while sitting in a room with one fan is “extremely unhealthy.” She said she and her husband and several parents tried to address the stifling heat in the school by taking up a donation to buy and install air conditioners; unfortunately, due to the age of the building and politics, it never happened.
In June, Duke’s 11-year-old daughter Ziya graduated from Emlen Elementary in Mt. Airy, and her 13-year-old son Zachary graduated from AMY Northwest Middle School in Roxborough. However, in the Fall, they will both be enrolled in a Cyber Charter School.
Dukes, whose husband works in a nursing home, said, “Our family knows what it is like to bury a child. We never want to do that again.”
Last year, her husband’s son accidentally drowned.
“No parent should ever have to bury a child,” she said. “So, putting our kids back in the school district for two days a week and playing Russian Roulette with another child is not an option for us.”
Duke was not happy with the school district’s virtual online program. She said the cyber charter school’s curriculum provides her children with a certain number of trips a year, and all the support they need online. The school will even assign her children a coach to help them with a specific class if they are struggling.
A Germantown resident, who teaches at a high school in Kensington and asked not to be identified said she thinks the district’s “planning efforts, money, and resources should be channeled into offering an excellent virtual instruction program for all students.”
She suggested starting school off virtually rather than attempt to start with a hybrid model and “then inevitably close and have to rush back to a virtual platform.”
“The lack of clear safety guidelines and contingencies if they are met is very concerning,” the high school teacher said. “Teachers are already overworked and underpaid, and I am concerned we are going to be further exploited in this plan. This is an unprecedented time; we should be doing everything we can to train teachers to offer grade-level, standards-based rigorous, equitable, and anti-racist virtual instruction.”
Several other teachers the local talked to voiced concerns about the hybrid model plan. While attempts are being made to keep students in specific classrooms or separated, a longtime Germantown resident and high school teacher in North Philadelphia wondered what would happen if a child does have symptoms or a fever and there is no nurse that day.
“Do they sit in the office until someone can pick them up.” She asked. “What happens if the art teacher who sees almost all the kids in the school contracts COVID-19? Kids aren’t as high risk as teachers and older adults of dying from COVID-19, but we still don’t know the long-term effects of COVID.”
The teacher also worried about being asymptomatic and being a vector. The school district is only going to give out one mask for teachers and staff for the entire year. She doesn’t think that is enough proper protective equipment.
Many educators voiced concerns about spending all their time “mask monitoring” and ensuring safety and cleaning protocols. They worried about the added stress and anxiety it would have on students.
Chestnut Hill resident Anthony Perre, a doctor and father of two teenagers, said he feels conflicted about students returning to school.
“While the data from Iceland and Scandinavian countries appear to show safety in bringing back children to school, it’s difficult to determine if that would apply in the U.S. where the prevalence has been so high,” he said. “I imagine these decisions need to be made locally based on the case rate in that area. There is still so much we don’t know about the virus, so proceeding with caution makes sense to me. I do understand that the mortality rate for children is extremely low, but we are also finding out that having the virus might lead to long-term morbidity. That being said, I know my own children have suffered some emotional consequences of social isolation, and that has its toll as well.”
Roseman, director of environmental science and occupational safety and health for the PFT, said it’s too early to decide if students will be back in school in September, because “It’s unclear right now what the COVID-19 situation is.”
“Cases are climbing,” he said.
He said Mayor Jim Kennedy recently instated a moratorium for events of more than 50 people on public property.
“We want kids back in school tomorrow, but that tomorrow has to be safe,” Roseman said.
To read the SDP reopening plan go to https://www.philasd.org/coronavirus/schoolstart2020.