We, like so many, are spending a lot of our time thinking about reopening schools safely. We are still trying to process last week’s Board of Education meeting in which over a hundred parents, students, and staff spoke about the need for a consciously safe return to education, only to be met with what appeared to be a coordinated plan to dismiss their concerns and delay Board action. There are clearly significant questions about the district’s ability to provide an adequate education and minimize COVID-19 exposure risk.
Parents and students have reason to be leery of the district’s reopening plan; the district’s trust problem with its stakeholders is not new. The School District of Philadelphia has a history of decision-making that ignores the input of families and educators while putting students and educators at risk. It is not hyperbole to say that people have died and will die due to the conditions in our schools.
In 2011, due to draconian cuts in state funding, our district shuttered libraries and after school programs and eliminated thousands of essential positions including school nurses. We were told then to make do with less. We were told that high quality education would continue even as we spoke out, testified, and rallied to make our concerns clear. It didn’t happen.
Those decisions in 2011 lead to the deaths of Laporisha Massey, a 6th grader from Bryant Elementary, and Sebastian Gerena, a 1st grader from Jackson Elementary in 2014, and an unknown amount of “near misses.” Years later, and only after intense, sustained public pressure from students, parents, staff and community members, nurses were finally restored and some of the cut programs have started to return.
Now, as we hear that school teams, led by principals, are searching for space to accommodate social distancing guidelines, we are reminded how the district used the work of Boston Consulting Group in 2012, along with expanding charter migration, to close 30 district schools and force mergers between the schools that remained.
The district reframed our children as “seats,” increasing capacity designations while forcing some principals to decide between filling their schools to the brim or face mergers or closure. In response, closets were turned to classrooms and class sizes exploded. As a result, our schools are now often packed, with classrooms in every possible space. There are many schools with no spare area to safely hold class while minimizing risk of COVID-19 spread.
After years of deferred maintenance and neglect, the school district has finally begun to address the deterioration of our school buildings. Lead by the work of the Philly Healthy School Initiative, over the past two years the district has started to tackle the issues of lead in water, lead paint/plaster, asbestos, mold, temperature control, and pest infestation.
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, we were told by the district that schools were safe to reopen. Even after longtime teacher Lea DiRusso was diagnosed with Mesothelioma, we were told that our students would be safe in their school buildings. In that same school year ten schools needed emergency closures to address emergent asbestos hazards, showing clearly that they were not, in fact, as safe as we were told.
This history of cuts, deflection, and disregard is the context into which the district has unveiled their reopening plan. We have seen district plans fail before, often at the cost of the health and safety of students and staff.
We believe that education is best when it focuses on the humanity of the individuals involved, which requires as much face to face personal interaction as possible. We want our students to have an educational experience includes small class sizes, highly qualified and invested teachers and staff, and stimulating learning opportunities. We want this to happen in person, in safe, comfortable, clean learning environments,
However, the COVID-19 pandemic demands respect. The acceptable amount of illness or death in a school community due to COVID-19 is zero.
Once the district can provide evidence to students, parents, and staff that they have provided a basic level of protection and have implemented steps to ensure the safety of everybody in our schools, we can return to the best educational model: in school, face to face. If it is not yet possible, and as this plan is set today – it is not, then we have to start virtually instead, investing our time now to ensure the best remote learning plans possible.
It appears we are left in a situation without winners. Either we trust that the district will do things right this time, despite a long history that tells us otherwise, or we opt for virtual learning that we know will not fully serve the needs of all students, and that leaves some without the face to face touch points that they may need.
There may well be some middle ground to be found. Instead of separating students from their home school environments when they opt for virtual learning, there may be ways to keep school communities together. There are likely innovations that have yet to be fully explored that would help support students with significant special education support needs, English Language learners, and other students who may have needs that are harder to see or address online. Finding these ways forward will require true collaboration between the district and the communities most impacted.
Last year was very hard for all involved. Our district has had a couple of months to find a better way to educate Philadelphia’s students, and yet the plan that resulted from that work seems to serve very few. We deserve better. We – parents, students, staff, community members – have fought and continue to fight for the high quality public education Philadelphia’s children require and deserve. The past is not the past, it is just our present foundation.