February 2021

The School District of Philadelphia is scheduled to reopen for in-person learning on March 1. Approximately 9,000 PreK-2 students whose caregivers opted for hybrid learning will begin receiving in-person services two days per week and engage in digital learning the remaining three days.

This will be the first time Philadelphia reopens for in-person learning since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The School District’s shared plan for Advancing Education Safely includes enhanced cleaning protocols, occupancy limits, PPE inventories, social distancing supports, and ventilation repairs and improvements. To address ventilation concerns, Philadelphia School District has purchased about 3,000 fans that are manufactured to generate at least 270 cubic feet of fresh air per minute.

In what Philadelphia describes as “an unprecedented effort”, certified ventilation experts will be conducting air-balancing tests in every school to assess airflow and inform needed repairs and improvements. Cities like New York and Chicago have not included this testing practice as part of their reopening plans.

Teachers were scheduled to return to school buildings on Monday, February 8. Numerous teachers and teacher organizations have expressed significant concerns about the safety of returning to schools at this time. It is unclear if ventilation inspections and testing of all classrooms have been completed. Moreover, there remain answered questions about the efficacy of using fans for ventilation and about vaccine access for teachers. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) has asked the City of Philadelphia to assign a neutral third party to assess if its buildings are truly safe.

The president of PFT advised members not to report to their school buildings on February 8 despite facing potential disciplinary action. On February 7, city officials confirmed that mediation between PFT and Philadelphia School District is underway, and “without a final decision from the mediator, teachers won’t be mandated to report tomorrow.”

Before COVID-19, Philadelphia schools were already struggling with issues related to environmental hazards in their antiquated buildings. During the 2019–2020 school year, 10 schools were required to close due to the presence of damaged asbestos, which was uncovered during planned construction.

Substantial renovations are required to make Philadelphia school buildings safe for all children, teachers, and staff. There is a case pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to determine if the Pennsylvania Department of Education arguing the State has failed to meet its legal obligation under the PA Constitution to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” The condition of Philadelphia school buildings is just one example of the state’s failure to equitably fund education for all students.
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