The union representing Philadelphia public school teachers triggered a mediation process Thursday after leaders said they could not find common ground with district officials over ventilation issues.
Earlier this week, it emerged that the School District of Philadelphia plans to use window fans in more than 1,000 classrooms lacking proper air flow in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.
About 9,000 school employees, including 2,000 teachers, are scheduled to report to buildings Monday, with the first students returning for in-person classes Feb. 22. It’s unclear how the mediation process will affect the district’s reopening plan.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the district has not met the conditions for an in-person return spelled out in a memorandum of agreement signed by both sides in the fall.
He called the fan scheme “dangerous” and “offensive.” Air balancing reports, Jordan added, show some schools in the city have not been approved to open their doors to even one person.
Superintendent William Hite referred to the fans as a “good faith effort” to resolve ventilation issues. In some instances, they will be temporary as crews work to restore the mechanical HVAC systems in aging buildings, he said.
“We don’t have a thought of prolonging” the in-person return, Hite told reporters Thursday. “We’re moving forward.”
Neither Hite nor Jordan would comment on the possibility of teachers not reporting to buildings Monday morning.
Under the MOA, the third-party adjudicator is selected through Mayor Jim Kenney’s labor department.
A city spokesperson said officials are in talks with an independent mediator, but, when Metro went to press, that person had yet to be identified.
Jordan told Metro he believes the mediator will make a decision on the matter “very quickly,” possibly before the end of the week.
District leaders initially said all the fans would be installed by Monday; however, Hite said the project, which also involves retesting the air flow in the affected classrooms, might not be completed until students return later in the month.
Teachers will be safe, he added, because ventilation only matters when there are multiple people in a classroom.
“He’s now raising the question of the value of the teachers’ lives is not as important as the students’ lives,” Jordan said. “I don’t understand that rationale.”
Hite also claimed mediation would only be able to delay the return of students, meaning teachers would still have to come in next week. Jordan disagreed with that reading of the agreement.
The district has purchased 3,000 fans, and it plans to install the units in 32 school buildings and in classrooms in about a dozen other schools, Hite said.
He noted that the district has spent $4 million on improving ventilation, which includes repairing infrastructure, conducting air balancing tests and buying the fans.
Mayor Jim Kenney and Health Commissioner Thomas Farley have both supported the idea of fans as a potential solution to the district’s air flow woes.
Financial considerations were not a part of the thinking when the district decided to use the fans, Hite said.
Classrooms with the units installed, he said, will be monitored daily to make sure they don’t get too cold.
Many other districts have decided to open windows, but the fans bring in more outside air to dilute any potential virus-containing droplets, district officials have said.
Teachers and parents were appalled when photographs circulated on social media showing the fans as they were being installed. A petition for the district to remain all-virtual started by a local mom has generated more than 5,500 signatures.
A longstanding distrust between the district and teachers, as well as parents, over the handling of other building issues, such as lead and asbestos, doesn’t inspire confidence in the school system’s ability to handle COVID-19.
“At this point, members are very, very, very anxious and, in some cases, quite frightened because a number of our members have experienced the serious effects of COVID-19,” Jordan said.
Jordan, in an email to PFT members Wednesday, encouraged them to contact City Council members and Kenney’s office to express their concerns.
District leaders have stressed that the fans are one part of a larger strategy to contain COVID-19. Other measures include mask wearing, hand washing, rapid tests and social distancing.
Just over 9,000 pre-K to 2nd students whose parents registered back in November are slated to resume face-to-face instruction Feb. 22. It’s the district’s third attempt at an in-person reopening.