Reopening and Reimagining in the School District of Philadelphia

Like so many others, we have been intensely focused on the discussion around a healthy and safe reopening of school buildings in the School District of Philadelphia for hybrid or in person learning. We wrote the following in our open letter regarding the original reopening plan:

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. 

Months later, we have seen very little progress and many missteps that highlight the longstanding lack of trust and unwillingness of District leadership to act in ways that value community collaboration and input, and put students, families and school staff first.

We will not stand by and wait. Instead, we will demand what we know the students, families, staff, and community members deserve. These are our demands:

  1. A safe, independently vetted and community-approved plan for COVID-safe building reopening for hybrid and in-person learning that accounts for the variation among school population and facilities.
  2. Complete plans with public-facing measurable goals and information sharing on both successes and failures towards full building reopening for all students that include an equity and racial justice-focused, transparent, and collaborative re-envisioning of curriculum, instruction, and student supports.
  3. Immediate changes to district and Board of Education and School District processes and policies that allow for increased information sharing, two-way communication, and real community engagement moving forward.

Below, we describe some of the specific measures that will need to be in place for each of these larger demands to be met.

We hope that these demands will support community dialogue around what each of them could look like and what they would mean for students, families, school staff, and the wider community. As such, we’ve created a way to gather feedback and ideas and concerns and wonderings.

Please read on to find out a little bit more about each of these three demands, and to engage with us in that dialogue.

We’d also like to should out our collaborators on the webinar and many other projects, the Philadelphia Home and School Council, the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, and Our City Our Schools, as well as the Facebook group “Parents Organized for a Better School District of Philadelphia”. This work is truly collaborative, coalition work, and we could not do it alone.

Demand #1: COVID-Safe Building Reopening

A safe, independently vetted and community-approved plan for COVID-safe building reopening for hybrid and in-person learning.

Context: The history of school buildings that harm children and staff is long in Philadelphia. Problems with lead, mold, asbestos, and heating and cooling are found in many of our schools. Buildings are often not maintained and large systems like heating and cooling have failed or are failing. COVID has brought many of these issues to everyone’s attention and has shown how there are no one-size-fits-all fixes that can make buildings safer for the return of school staff and children. Each school community needs to feel that the District understands and has a plan to address their school’s specific issues. A fan is not a solution. We need the experienced eyes of the PFT Environmental Director reviewing the plans for a safe return for each school. We must also address other issues that are critical to protecting our communities, such as decreasing community spread through vaccination, testing, and contact tracing. Every child, parent and staff member should feel confident that their school administrators have a clear, up to date, and easy to follow protocol.

Steps Forward: In order for this demand to be met, the following must be in place.

  1. Every school room that will have kids, teachers or staff in it for any purpose must have its ventilation plan and other reopening specific safety measures approved by PFT.
  2. Every school staff member who wants or needs to be vaccinated can do so before going back into the classroom.
  3. A clear COVID testing and contact tracing protocol that reflects the current best practices and up to date guidance based on new variants, and which allows for the fast release of data and information about COVID rates within and across schools.

Take Action: It is critical that parent voices are heard on these issues. Please sign up to testify at the City Council hearing “Safely Reopening Schools” on 2/17 by emailing Nick.Spiva@phila.gov or call 215-686-3420. Or share your questions and concerns with Councilperson Gym via this form. 

Share Your Thoughts: What else does this demand mean to you? What ideas do you have? Share your thoughts on this demand here (you can add your own thoughts, and also like others’ to boost ideas you agree with or want to know more about).

Demand #2: Collaborative Re-envisioning

Complete plans with public-facing measurable goals and information sharing on both successes and failures towards full building reopening for all students that include an equity and racial justice-focused, transparent, and collaborative re-envisioning of curriculum, instruction, and student supports.

Context: The School District has twice tried to reopen schools with plans that have not authentically included parent and student input, and has often hidden information about the true issues with specific school buildings and reopening. The hybrid learning plan doesn’t center the needs of our children and makes no effort to provide parents, staff and community members with an educational plan that is based on the needs of our most vulnerable students and families. Virtual learning has also highlighted long standing issues with curriculum, instruction, and over-testing. This is the moment for visionary leadership that shows that the School District and Board of Education is committed to working to end the huge differences in facilities and resources between the haves and have-nots in our Philadelphia public schools. We need radical honesty about the hard work ahead and a true, measurable commitment to shift the focus from testing and other racially biased methods of assessment to make sure every child learns in an academically rich school environment with appropriate funding and services (including small class sizes, a stable and effective leadership team, teaching staff and supports, a well-rounded curriculum, access to fresh food, safe and adequate facilities, and free transportation). 

Steps Forward: In order for this demand to be met, the following must be in place.

  1. Fully vetted and agreed upon facility safety standards that address long-standing issues such as asbestos, lead, mold, water quality, and ventilation.
  2. Detailed school-specific, long-term, incremental COVID and general facility safety plans for full capacity reopening that are developed, reviewed, and vetted in public and with input from students, families, and staff.
  3. Permanently lowered class sizes and a permanent end to leveling (both of which require a robust hiring program that should emphasize increasing the proportions of BIPOC educators).
  4. A strategic plan towards comprehensive curricula focused on the whole child at all schools that includes art, music, science, ethnic studies, physical education and health, special education, counseling, related services, and ESOL.
  5. Dramatic reductions in testing of students and usage of computer-based learning programs.
  6. Community-focused, anti-racist, and culturally responsive models for education.

Take Action:

Share Your Thoughts: What else does this demand mean to you? What ideas do you have? Share your thoughts on this demand here (you can add your own thoughts, and also like others’ to boost ideas you agree with or want to know more about).

Demand #3: True Community Engagement

Immediate changes to district and Board of Education and School District processes and policies that allow for increased information sharing, two-way communication, and real community engagement moving forward.

Context: With a locally controlled Board of Education, we expected more input from the community compared to years of the School Reform Commission silencing of student, parent, staff and community voices. Instead, we’ve seen community engagement and input become little more than buzzwords. In recent months, the Board, working behind closed doors, cut speakers’ time from three to two minutes and drastically limited the number of speakers at every meeting. Earlier this year, Board President Wilkerson warned speakers that if they attempted to speak on any topic other than the one designated on their sign-up form, she would have their mics cut off. This silencing of community voices will not stand. It is illegal, and it makes a mockery of the Boards new “Goals and Guardrails” where they pretend to care about input but instead create ways to silence the community.

Steps Forward: In order for this demand to be met, the following must be in place.

  1. A substantive and robust Environmental Advisory Committee that reports to the Board and the City and is tasked with ensuring ongoing evaluation, assessment mitigation strategies, best practices for planning, and priority setting to improve facilities and address environmental conditions across all schools in an equitable way.
  2. Proper planning for the relocation of students for asbestos/ lead remediation, contingency plans for delays/construction problems, and real-time progress monitoring dashboard for capital projects that includes access to up-to-date facility safety reports, work orders for major repairs, and documentation of remediation of hazardous materials.
  3. Updated Facility Condition Assessments, paired with detailed plans to address the issues within them that provided for each school and presented to the school community for feedback and input.
  4. Real engagement with the community including the removal of the new two minute time limit and speaker cap for Board of Education meetings. 
  5. Improved whistleblower protections for parents, staff and students who speak out, and a clear process for students, families, and staff to report problems and concerns with school administrators and district leaders.

Take Action: 

Share Your Thoughts: What else does this demand mean to you? What ideas do you have? Share your thoughts on this demand here (you can add your own thoughts, and also like others’ to boost ideas you agree with or want to know more about).

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