PHILADELPHIA - The School District of Philadelphia has delayed its plan to welcome a limited number of students back into classrooms by a week as a third-party review of the district's safety protocols continues, Superintendent Hite announced Wednesday.
Starting March 1, pre-k to 2nd grade students who opted for the hybrid learning model back in the fall will report to school two days a week. The setback comes after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) protested the district's readiness to restart in-person learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The union argued that school buildings were not properly fit for the safety of students and staff. PFT pointed at the use of window fans to address airflow concerns in schools with insufficient HVAC systems as an area of contention. The union later called for a third-party review of the district's preparations, which remains in mediation.
The conflict came to a head last week when PFT directed its members not to report to buildings as instructed by the district on Feb. 8. After disciplinary threats from the district, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney interceeded and ruled that teachers could withhold attendance until the third-party mediation is complete.
Relishing in their "massive victory" the union urged teachers to not enter school buildings and to continue scheduled protests. Prior to Kenney's decree, the union planned a "day of action for safe schools" to protest what they believe are inadequate COVID-19 protocols.
Last week, the district showed off its preparations during a tour of schools. The district enlisted a doctor with a specialty in childhood infectious diseases to make its case. They also displayed Plexiglas dividers, fans, distancing markers, and handwashing stations.
"We have spent $250M to safeguard the health and wellbeing of students and teachers as they return to our schools," Hite said Wednesday. "We are fully committed to following the guidance of health experts to support student and staff safety."
In addition to health and safety protocols, Hite said the district has secured an abundance of PPE and cleaning supplies to keep tame potential transmission. The district has also placed capacity limits and appropriate signage around schools.
"These measures meet, and in fact, exceed, the conditions that the district and the PFT agreed to in the memorandum of agreement we both signed last year," Hite said.
Meanwhile, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia will offer free rapid tests to teachers and staff to help identify positive cases, according to Hite. CHOP earlier announced it will help the city vaccinate teachers and staff starting later this month.
PFT President Jerry Jordan released the following statement after the district announced the one week delay in reopening on Wednesday.
"The School District made the right decision to delay the reopening of school buildings, as far too many questions regarding safety of buildings for reoccupancy remain unanswered. The Federation's position that we are unable to verify the safety of buildings for reoccupancy--and in fact we know that many buildings are unsafe for reoccupancy--remains unchanged. We continue to work through many of these issues specifically regarding ventilation with the neutral third party. Our goal of returning to school buildings when it is safe to do so also remains unchanged. The Union triggered the intervention of the neutral third party, as negotiated by the PFT and District, when we believed that the District was pursuing a reopening plan that did not meet necessary safety metrics, particularly surrounding ventilation. It is unfortunate and disappointing that Dr. Hite lays the blame squarely on the PFT for utilizing a process to which he agreed, and a process that is designed to keep students and staff safe. Students and staff cannot learn and teach if they are ill or worse. As we continue to work towards the safe reopening of school buildings, our members will continue to do what they have been doing throughout this pandemic--going above and beyond to ensure that, even in terribly challenging circumstances, they are teaching the students they serve."
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