Dr. William Hite, Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia
Philadelphia Board of Education
Philadelphia City Council
2/18/2021, updated 2/19/2021
Dr. Hite, Board of Education members, and Council members:
We are glad to hear that the School District of Philadelphia has pushed back the date for return to school buildings. Like the majority of parents across the district (according to district data), we do not trust that the current plan will keep our children safe.
We believe that taking the time to get all aspects of building reopening plans right, so that we can ensure everyone’s safety, is the right choice. As such, we are disturbed with the district’s leadership’s insistence in implying that members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers are being irrational or unrealistic in demanding a better plan.
In seeking to unfairly shift the blame to teachers via the union, the district continues to minimize the role and the voice of parents and caregivers across the district. We, like many other parents, have showed up over and over again sharing our questions and our concerns, but we still see evidence that we are not truly being heard. District leadership has also refused to take any responsibility for their failures in planning, collaboration, and communication.
We would be in a very different place as a district and a community if only district leadership would take responsibility, own that their long-standing actions and inactions have lead to a severe lack of trust, recognize that additional time provides an opportunity to make improvements, and take on a real effort to learn so that they can make informed changes. Instead, we continue to hear district leaders say that, but for a few “honest mistakes,” they’ve done everything right.
In a sequence that is painfully familiar from asbestos issues as recently as last school year, the district continues to assure everybody that the buildings are safe when there is verifiable evidence in the form of residential-grade window fans and lead-infused tape that they’re not.
The continued standoff between the PFT and the school district is frustrating, but not because it is keeping school buildings closed. It is a striking illustration of what happens when plans are made without all stakeholders, including parents, the PFT, support staff, and students, at the table. Even now, the district insists that schools will be reopening while teachers are just beginning to receive their first doses of the vaccine. Research shows that there is also the potential for children to get sick themselves and/or to spread the virus to their family members at home.
It is unacceptable that Dr. Hite and other district leaders continue to use this situation to cast blame on teachers when the PFT is, in fact, making reasonable requests focused on ensuring safety for everyone. Likewise, the PFT must demand a seat at the table from the outset of all planning processes rather than being reactive to the district’s plans, and they must demand seats alongside them for parents and students.
These plans, which are deeply flawed, impact all of our health, safety, and welfare. It’s unacceptable that district leaders continue to create situations that require the incredibly draining, intensive labor of parents and stakeholders as fact-checkers and accountability monitors, rather than proactively bringing folks together in the planning stages.
Many students and families are struggling under the weight of nearly a year of living through a pandemic, difficulties with online learning, and many other sources of hardship and trauma.
At the same time, we know that our buildings have been and remain unsafe, and that we cannot trust district leadership to do right by us and our children.
Multiple things can be true at once.
If the district chose, it could take steps to make improvements in both of these areas simultaneously. In fact, improvements to the challenges of remote learning would have much wider impact, given that more than two thirds of students will not be returning in this first phase of hybrid learning.
We continue to demand more of district leaders, and we implore the district to reopen the buildings only when it is truly, verifiably safe.
Leadership, Parents United for Public Education
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Take Action! Contact the BoE and Council to demand full and transparent collaboration and community engagement, even after the arbitration process is over, which must include more than infrequent, surface-level surveys of parents.