Continued Deficiencies in Reopening Safety and Transparency [Open Letter]

Dr. William Hite, Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia
Philadelphia Board of Education
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

3/7/2021

Dr. Hite, Board of Education members, and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers executive officers:

On the eve of the reopening of 53 school buildings, we are writing to share our concerns with readiness and transparency, and to request the proactive sharing of data and detailed information on facility safety, COVID testing results, and reopening progress. We want children back in school buildings only when it is safe, and it is your collective responsibility to do more to ensure that safety.

In our reviews of the information released by the district and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, we have observed that there are still numerous holes. Parents are not being given timely access to clear, detailed information with which to make decisions about returning their children to school buildings.

Here are a few examples of areas in which we see urgent deficiencies:

  • Many schools have information listed in linked ventilation reports from the contractors that are not updated or reflected in the district’s ABR reports, making it hard to determine overall building status
  • There is no way to know when ABR reports are updated or replaced other than checking the folder, individual reports, and linked attachments
  • The Reopening Readiness Dashboard checklists provide no specifics about what each item means, only a binary checkbox with no evidence
  • There is no central place to find school-specific reopening logistics or plans, leaving parents to have to do the work of finding this important information before making decisions
  • Schools that are opening on March 8 do not uniformly have common areas cleared and some schools, such as Houston Elementary in Mt Airy, have fewer rooms “cleared” than classes returning with no information about bathrooms, the main office, the cafeteria, or the nurse’s office
  • There is no information available to parents about why other schools have not been cleared, or what work is being done to address concerns
  • Parents have not been notified as to what work has been done in their childrens’ schools while the buildings have been closed, including asbestos remediation and abatement projects
  • The conditions in some schools schools don’t appear to reflect the standards the district has shared, as evidenced by numerous photos of dirty classrooms (including mold and layers of dirt on vents) and reports of window fans still in place
  • There is no system for public reporting of COVID cases in schools

We would like to see issues like those listed above addressed proactively, transparently, and in detail. We have yet to see any urgency in your response to these types of issues, despite the fact that they indicate the possibility of harm to students, their families, and staff.

The checklist format currently provided on the Reopening Readiness Dashboard lacks enough detail to be useful, and the air balancing reports are confusing, with many missing updated information that is present in the linked reports or yet to be updated since the promised removal of the window fans.

We hope to see the following types of information shared proactively and publicly with parents:

  • Work orders for major repairs, construction, and renovation projects
  • Documentation of the completion of all repairs, construction, renovation, remediation, and abatement projects, including inspections and test results verifying safety
  • Documentation of remediation of hazardous materials including:
    • Room by room School Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act [AHERA] inspection logs from the first 6 months re-inspections following the 2018-2019 3 year inspections
    • Asbestos Abatement and Demolition/ Renovation Notification Forms
    • Asbestos Design Data Collection (DDC) documents
    • Asbestos final reports and all sampling data associated with asbestos abatement, remediation, and demolition/ renovation activities performed
  • Updated Facility Condition Assessments with action plans that incorporate school community feedback

More immediately, we would like to see a real-time dashboard sharing information about COVID rates within and across schools, and school-specific information about COVID safety plans. The New Hampshire COVID-19 Schools Dashboard provides an excellent example of what true transparency could look like, although there are certainly lower-tech and lower-overhead alternatives as well.
As founding members of the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative, we have been offering for years to provide support and input on these matters. That offer still stands.

Sincerely,
Leadership, Parents United for Public Education


For more on these data requests, including examples of some reports of unsafe conditions and missing data, see this blog post.

Take Action

  • Request a tour of your school building so that you can see the conditions for yourself
  • Document any information you are able to gather about facilities conditions (whether through a tour or from your child or their teacher) using the PFT Healthy Schools app
  • Consider testifying during the upcoming Board of Education Public Hearing on March 18 about your experiences trying to find and verify information about facility safety and the reopening plans
  • Share our post and letter with your elected officials and your wider network

School Buildings are Reopening but Where’s the Data?

The first 53 school buildings are reopening tomorrow for children for the first time in almost a year, despite ongoing concerns about the amount of information and up to date data that is not publicly available for parents to review. Reports on social media of filthy and mold-covered vents and classrooms show that many of the conditions of reopening have not been met.

We’re glad that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has provided public information about their “vetting” process, such as this excerpt that shows the criteria used to “clear” classrooms and schools for occupancy by students:

Screenshot of PFT document outlining procedures for “clearing” rooms for re-occupancy with added annotation. Source link: https://www.pft.org/sites/default/files/reoccupancyprocedure.pdf

However, we have not seen clear, up to date evidence that the PFT’s requirements marked in the screenshot above have been met. The PFT’s table of rooms that have been “cleared” for re-occupancy shows that some schools are missing many common non-classroom spaces (such as bathrooms, cafeterias, main offices, and nurses’ offices) from the lists.

There are schools on the list, such as Houston in Mt. Airy, that have fewer usable spaces than classes returning tomorrow and no common spaces listed at all, along with no updated ventilation report since promises were made about removing the window fans and retesting with improved equipment.

Screenshot of PFT report showing cleared spaces for Houston Elementary

Additionally, the documentation from PFT shows what some of the issues are but only for the first 53 schools, and it does not provide specifics about what has been resolved, and with what evidence. It doesn’t address any of the reasons that other schools have not yet been “cleared,” which means that parents are stuck waiting for updates, in a constant position of having to react with limited time and incomplete information.

Transparency Through Information Sharing

In line with our Reopening and Reimagining demands for COVID-Safe Building Reopening and True Community Engagement, we believe that transparency through proactive sharing of data and information is essential.

We would like to see the following measures from our Reopening and Reimagining Demand #3 implemented immediately:

  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.

More specifically, we would like the following documents provided through a real-time dashboard:

  • Work orders for major repairs, construction, and renovation projects
  • Documentation of the completion of all repairs, construction, renovation, remediation, and abatement projects, including inspections and test results verifying safety
  • Documentation of remediation of hazardous materials including:
    • Room by room School Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act [AHERA] inspection logs from the first 6 months re-inspections following the 2018-2019 3 year inspections
    • Asbestos Abatement and Demolition/ Renovation Notification Forms
    • Asbestos Design Data Collection (DDC) documents
    • Asbestos final reports and all sampling data associated with asbestos abatement, remediation, and demolition/ renovation activities performed
  • Updated Facility Condition Assessments with action plans that incorporate school community feedback

In addition, we would like this measure from Demand #1 to be implemented through a comprehensive, public-facing COVID-19 reporting dashboard:

  1. 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.

There are a number of states and districts that provide COVID rate information in real time via online dashboards that could serve as good examples, with New Hampshire setting a standard:

We, and many others in our network, would be happy to offer our knowledge, experience, and assistance with making these requests for data and transparency a reality. We sent an open letter outlining these concerns and issues to Dr. Hite, the Board of Education, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. You can read it here, as well as see some suggested advocacy action steps at the end.

Considering Opting Out Your Child from High-Stakes Testing?

Data on teacher’s perceptions of the PSSA’s effectiveness as an indicator of student achievement from the June 2019 “Standardized Tests in Public Education” report by the PA General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee

With the recent guidance issued from the Department of Education that says that states must give standardized tests this school year (despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the many other reasons testing should be cancelled), we’ve decided to republish this post about opting out of testing.

We will continue to update the post and resources as more information becomes available about adjustments to the processes for this school year.


Over recent years, there have been a handful of parents, district wide, who contentiously objected to the high stakes attached to the state’s standardized tests: PSSA and Keystones. In some years, there have been more organized efforts, like those in 2014-15 that lead to over 17% of families from Feltonville School of Arts and Science opting out of the PSSAs.

We fully support the right for parents to opt their children out of high stakes standardized tests. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of a few states that has a legal provision for parents to opt their children out of the PSSA and Keystone exams.

Standardized testing has been at the forefront of what is going wrong in public education. Initially set to identify practices that were hampering students education, the tests now are used to assign failure and blame throughout public education to students, their teachers, administrators, and schools.

It is clear that schools have been and continue to be targeted for closure and charter turnover primarily based on their test scores. It is extremely concerning that there is insufficient attention to major factors affecting education in Philadelphia: poverty, access to resources, homelessness, English language ability, special education needs, and violence.

While limited progress has been made, we still have not achieved fair funding for our public education system. After well over a decade of these standardized tests and the increasing stakes attached to them, what we know is that they are most likely to predict a student’s household income not their intellect or ability to learn.

And, these tests come at a significant financial cost. According to the June 2019 “Standardized Tests in Public Education” report by the PA General Assembly’s Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, the cost to PDE for standardized testing was $42.17 million in fiscal year 2017-2018.

As parents, we have the ability to create the public educational system that we want our children to experience.

We can ensure that our children have arts, music, social studies classes.

We can make inclusive insightful learning opportunities are present for our children and push back on the amounts of test prep prevalent in the months before April.

We can ensure that any testing focuses on the academic success of the student.

We can finally actively address the educational gaps that is are present but rarely closed.

We can press our elected officials and appointed school board to acknowledge that more testing does not lead to more learning.

Speaking with more parents, teachers, and educators we realized that there was a general lack of information regarding opt-out. All schools are required by law to provide their families with information on how to opt out.

Opt-Out Resources

Click here for the Education Law Center’s Opt-Out Fact Sheet, which provides a wealth of information about opting out.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education FAQ Sheet on PSSAs is usually sent home from the schools before testing begins and gives general information about the PSSA.

For more information on why and how to opt out, including our form letter templates and generator, visit our Opt Out page.

If you have questions or would like more information about standardized testing or the Opt-Out movement, please contact us at parentsunitedphila@gmail.com

Open Letter Regarding Continued Hybrid Reopening Plan Failures

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.

Sincerely,

Leadership, Parents United for Public Education


Thanks for reading! While you’re here, we encourage you to share this letter, sign up for our email list, and to check out our demands for reopening and reimagining the School District of Philadelphia. We know that continued action and advocacy is the only way we will see change for our children and families.

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.

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).