Local school parents support teacher concerns over returning to classrooms

by Sue Ann Rybak
Posted 2/17/21

Bundled in winter coats, hats and gloves, School District of Philadelphia teachers sat outside at tables with posters that said, “Plans Not Fans,” “Only when it’s safe,” and “Not a fan of the plan.”

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Local school parents support teacher concerns over returning to classrooms

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Bundled in winter coats, hats and gloves, School District of Philadelphia teachers sat outside at tables with posters that said, “Plans Not Fans,” “Only when it’s safe,” and “Not a fan of the plan.”

The protest was directed at the district’s hybrid plan to reopen schools for students in kindergarten thru second grade on February 8.

Dr. William R. Hite, Jr., the School District of Philadelphia’s superintendent, initially told teachers if they did not report to school on Monday, they would face disciplinary action. However, on Sunday night, the City intervened and said the roughly 2,000 SDP teachers did not have to report to work until a third party negotiator, Dr. Peter Orris, determines if it is safe for teachers and students to return to in-person learning.

Roughly 9,000 kindergartens, first and second-grade students are scheduled to return to school on February 22 under the district’s hybrid model. Students participating in the hybrid model would attend in-person classes two days a week. Teachers would attend in-person classes four days a week and be required to remotely teach other students who opted out of the program simultaneously.

Councilmembers Helen Gym (At-Large), Kendra Brooks (At-Large), Derek Green (At-Large), Jamie Gauthier (3rd district) and State Representatives Rick Krajewski (188th District) and Chris Rabb (200th District) called for a delay in the reopening of public schools citing the fact that “one in four elementary schools has no functioning mechanical ventilation system.”

“These conditions are appalling pre-COVID,” they said in a statement. “Amid a deadly pandemic, it is unacceptable.”

On February 17, City Council’s Committees on Children and Youth Education will hold a joint hearing regarding the district’s reopening plan.

Rabb, who visited several elementary schools on Monday, including Franklin S. Edmonds Elementary School, the site of a deadly boiler explosion that killed Christopher Trakimas, a facility mechanic in 2016, told teachers, parents and community organizers that the district needs to have “a reopening plan that respects science and is based in reality.”

Roberta Frempong, president of the Home and School Association at J.S. Jenks Academy of Arts and Science in Chestnut Hill, and a mother of a first-grader at the school, said she thought the district would do “what is right and what makes sense and spend this school year getting all schools up to a level that is safe versus putting a band-aid on the problem.”

While Frempong was happy to hear that the City and district are working with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to begin scheduling teachers to receive vaccinations on February 22, the date schools are expected to reopen. She said it’s not safe for anyone to return to Philadelphia Public Schools until all teachers and staff are vaccinated.

She said several teachers and parents have voiced concerns about whether the district’s current hybrid model plan fosters a healthy learning environment to produce better outcomes versus on-screen learning because teachers will be multitasking. She said students in K-2nd grade would still be required to work from their laptops because teachers will be teaching students remotely and in-person.

“The district and the city are pushing to get students back in class to return to normalcy, but that’s not what a normal classroom environment should be or has been for our students in the past,” Frempong said.

Teresa Rennie, who teaches 8th grade in Northwest Philadelphia and whose son is a kindergartner with special needs, commented on the district’s reopening plan in an email.

Rennie’s son receives special services from the SDP to help him with math and reading. He also receives occupational and physical therapy.

“Every day, I can hear how his teachers work to engage him,” she wrote. “They communicate with me and have built relationships with their students and their families. All of this done virtually.”

Rennie said it is challenging teaching students’ virtually and acknowledged that online learning is not the same as in-person, face-to-face learning.

“I want to be back in the building to see my students, and so, my son can get some social interaction, but not unless it is safe,” she wrote in an email. “The district and the union agreed on a legally binding document about what safe means, and I trust them with my life and my son’s. Fans are not a solution or a band-aid. They are a bad idea and not a good faith effort.”

She added that the district has not thought through logistics. For example, she said, “What happens when a young student has an accident, which often occurs in the younger grades and special needs population.”

“Teachers work hard every day,” she said. “We want to go back, but we want our students and ourselves to be safe.”

Chestnut Hill resident Haviva Goldman, a member of the Friends of Jenks Board, said she also supports School District of Philadelphia Teachers.

“I am sure the dedicated teachers at Jenks and other district schools would like nothing more than to be able to teach their students in person, and parents would love to have their children back in-person at school, but both teachers and families need to feel that they are safe in these indoor spaces,” she said. “If teachers feel so unsafe as to feel compelled to teach outside on a freezing winter day to protest, then I think parents should also be concerned and demand that the district address these issues.”

Alison Wear, who has a kindergartner, a first-grader, and a fifth-grader at C.W. Henry Elementary School, 601 W. Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy, said she opted out of the hybrid model and stands in solidarity with teachers.

“I am eager to have my kids back in the classroom, particularly my youngest kids, who would really benefit from returning to the classroom, but this pandemic has amplified the disparities between well-funded school districts and those struggling to make ends-meat,” she said. “So on top of COVID-19, years of deferred maintenance, shotty ventilation equipment, and the fact that most teachers are not vaccinated, it’s not time for kids to return to the classroom.”

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