District standoff ends with 50 schools to open next week

Superintendent William Hite speaks Monday, March 1, at Richard R. Wright Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

About 50 Philadelphia public school buildings will reopen to students next week, following a mediator-facilitated agreement between district leaders and the city’s teachers’ union.

An in-person return stalled last month, and the sides have been locked in negotiations with health expert Dr. Peter Orris, a city-appointed third-party adjudicator, over issues of building safety since Feb. 4.

Teachers will be reporting to 53 schools Wednesday, and pre-K to 2nd grade students in those schools whose parents signed up for hybrid learning in November will be returning March 8, officials said Monday.

For the nearly 100 schools that will remain closed March 8, an internal process has been established, with the district and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers planning to independently review batches of schools.

Every Monday, officials plan to say which schools will open the following Monday, with staff required to go in to prepare classrooms on the Wednesday after the announcement.

The goal is for a reopening date to be scheduled for all 152 schools by March 22.

“We can do this safely if we’re committed to doing this together, and together is how we got to this point,” Superintendent William Hite said Monday at a press briefing at Richard R. Wright Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

In a victory for the PFT, the district has agreed to ditch a plan to use thousands of window fans to boost airflow in classrooms with low ventilation. Instead, air purifiers will be set up in rooms that had been equipped with fans, Hite said.

The fans, he said, will be returned to the manufacturer or utilized in a different way.

Mayor Jim Kenney, during the announcement, seemed to defend the strategy, noting that the city is now encouraging restaurants to add fans as a way to meet ventilation standards.

“The fans have always been denigrated,” he said. “There is a benefit to the fans. It may not be the only solution, but, from what I understand, not being medically trained, the movement of air is the key.”

Arthur Steinberg, chief trustee of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund, speaks Monday, March 1, at Richard R. Wright Elementary School in North Philadelphia. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Air flow has been a high priority for teachers, who have expressed concerns that COVID-19 could more easily spread in aging buildings.

The PFT’s environmental scientist, Jerry Roseman, is reviewing the district’s data, which was recently shared with the union.

To determine buildings readiness, he will be examining air flow, as well as whether asbestos is impacting the ventilation system, according to a document shared by the PFT.

“We’re not going to cut any corners or take any shortcuts and jeopardize people’s safety to get them back into buildings,” said Arthur Steinberg, chief trustee of the PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund.

The union will continue to fight to remedy the district’s long-standing building conditions, he said.

“It should be lost on none of us that the conditions that have been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic would never, ever be tolerated in a wealthier, whiter district,” Steinberg added.

PFT representatives have previously indicated that they would prefer to see all teachers vaccinated before reopening buildings; however, Steinberg said that was “never a prerequisite” for an in-person return.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia vaccinated about 2,000 school personnel last week, and, on Monday, it began administering doses at six schools around Philadelphia.

CHOP will also be providing rapid COVID-19 tests to the district, which plans to randomly swab 20% of asymptomatic students a week. Teachers without symptoms will be tested once a week.

Other health measures, including universal masking, desk partitions and hand sanitizer stations, have also been implemented.

After all the students whose families previously registered for in-person classes return, parents who chose to stay 100% virtual in November will be able to opt in to the hybrid schedule, Hite said.

There is no timeline for other groups of students, but officials have said those in special education classes and career and technical education courses will be prioritized.

The following schools will reopen Monday for pre-K to 2nd grade students:

Abraham Lincoln High

Alain Locke School

Albert M. Greenfield School

Andrew Hamilton School

Anna B. Day School

Cayuga Elementary

Chester Arthur School

Cook-Wissahickon School

Dr. Ethel Allen School

Edward Gideon School

Edward Heston School

Edward Steel School

Ethan Allen School

F. Amedee Bregy School

Fitler Academics Plus

Frances E. Willard School

Franklin S. Edmonds School

Henry A. Brown School

Henry H. Houston

Henry W. Lawton School

Hon. Luis Munoz-Marin Elementary

Isaac A. Sheppard School

J. Hampton Moore School

John Barry Elementary

John F. Hartranft School

John F. McCloskey School

John H. Webster School

John Marshall School

John Moffet School

Joseph Greenberg School

Joseph W. Catharine

Julia De Burgos

Julia Ward Howe School

Juniata Park Academy

Kenderton Elementary

Mary McLeod Bethune School

Mayfair School

Olney Elementary

Overbrook Educational Center

Overbrook Elementary

Penn Alexander School

Penrose School

Rhodes Elementary

Richard R. Wright School

Shawmont School

Southwark School

Stephen Decatur School

Thomas A. Edison High

Thomas K. Finletter School

Thurgood Marshall School

William C. Longstreth School

William H. Loesche School

William McKinley Elementary