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 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).

COVID Reopening and Building Safety Questions

During our recent set of webinars about Philadelphia schools’ facility conditions and safety, we had the opportunity to share information and hear questions from many caregivers and educators. (View a video of the Facebook Live recording of the webinar.)

Folks continue to be very concerned about long-term issues such as lead, asbestos, mold, and water quality, while also facing many unanswered immediate questions about safety precautions for reopening buildings in the midst of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, while we were able to gather many of these questions, we ultimately cannot answer most of them. They should be answered, but by district leadership, in public.

We’ve compiled a list below that summarizes the questions that were asked during our webinars. We encourage caregivers to reach out to city council and the school board to continue pushing for answers. It is critical that parent voices are heard!

In addition, please sign up to testify at the City Council hearing “Safely Reopening Schools” on 2/17/21 by emailing or calling 215-686-3420. You can also share your questions and concerns about the district’s current hybrid re-opening plan with Councilperson Gym via this form. 

The questions below are lightly edited for clarity and to combine/ remove duplicate topics. They were submitted via the Q&A function during the webinars and do not necessarily reflect the questions or priorities of Parents United as an organization.

Questions About General Facility Safety

  • What is the status of capital improvements as it pertains to the HVAC systems and asbestos mitigation? Has the Philadelphia School District fully addressed each building regarding the asbestos?
  • There is a lot of talk federally about funding coming to school districts. Is there any information about how the district might plan to use prospective funding? (Given the past issues with not properly addressing facility issues.)
  • Has the Philadelphia School District provided all supplies and repairs needed for each school?
  • Why isn’t the boiler room and attics in schools being tested and what can we do to demand that these rooms be tested for asbestos, mold, and lead? What about the analysis of the areas concealed by drop ceiling tiles – present in many schools?
  • SDP is about to get a lot of money from the most recent COVID funding. How can we be sure it is spent on the right things when it comes to environmental and health safety issues? Do you feel federal intervention may be warranted to help fund and rebuild in our district due to our particular circumstances?
  • To be clear, I want my child to go back to school IF the building is healthy. What I am hearing is that our schools are very unhealthy (and probably have been for a while). Are others on this call feeling the same way?

General Reopening Plan Questions (Non-Ventilation)

  • What is the safest place for k-2 students to eat lunch (and maybe breakfast) – in the classrooms or rotating through the cafeteria? Could meals be held outside at schools where that is possible?
  • Why are the teachers and other staff not being given the choice of getting vaccinated before they return to an unsafe environment? Is there any chance that our teachers will be offered a first vaccination prior to Feb 22?
  • My kid’s Kindergarten teacher told us today that there may be no recess, for fear of children touching playground equipment that is ‘contaminated.’ This is working off of data from almost a year ago that has been disproven. Any word on this?
  • How much safer would outdoor classrooms/ being outside be even in non-ideal weather? Would it significantly reduce risk if they limited their time indoors with outside time in between?
  • Water fountains are closed – how will the children remain hydrated? What if they forget a water bottle?
  • En Israel solamente maestros y personal vacunado con la primera y segunda dosis están permitidos ir a colegio y dar clases en persona. También los alumnos mayores de 16 años deben estar vacunados con las 2 dosis antes de venir al colegio a tomar clases en persona. Porque no tomamos ese ejemplo?Translation via Google Translate: “In Israel only teachers and staff vaccinated with the first and second doses are allowed to go to school and teach in person. Also, students over 16 years of age must be vaccinated with the 2 doses before coming to school to take classes in person. Why don’t we take that example?”
  • Has SDP considered alternate sites such as Liacouras center or buildings not in use due to Covid that are larger and newer?
  • What does the district know about testing staff and students regularly to help mitigate the spread of covid in 2021?
  • Who will be liable if anyone, staff, student, administrator, etc., gets COVID while in a building with poor ventilation or improperly installed ventilation?
  • What kind of safety measures are being put in place for art and music teachers who interact with all the classrooms and in a school? I understand that this kind of plan would violate the “pod” concept of separate students in classrooms.
  • Knowing that this pandemic may not have a precise “end,” what would you recommend in terms of getting kids back into class? Kids truly are suffering. How can we get kids actually BACK before the end of this school year?
  • What are the data on transmission/ infection rates in K12 schools who have been conducting in-person or hybrid teaching (obviously outside SDP)? Is there data publicly available for COVID incidence and transmission in schools in Philadelphia county that have had in person schooling since Sept?
  • To be clear, when you talk about “safe enough” conditions for a reopening, this doesn’t mean there isn’t still a transmission risk, right? What is the transmission risk in the kind of minimal safe conditions you were talking about?
  • Will there be any allotted funds to the school district for outside disinfection and sanitizing services such as electrostatic spraying?
  • There seems to be a disagreement about the definition of “substantial” transmission rate. Would you clarify what you consider the acceptable threshold for cases/100,000 and test positivity rate is?

General Ventilation Questions

  • Do individually purchased (expensive) room Air Purifiers do any good to mitigate viral load in a room? In other words, is it worth a teacher purchasing this on their own??
  • If a school had a non-working house fan what would be a reasonable fix to bring the ventilation up to a modern standard? do they need to be replaced with a different system or repaired?
  • Is there any information about the bathrooms? None of our bathrooms were tested because they have no univents and no windows, so no air circulation. Those bathrooms shouldn’t even be used now.
  • While ventilation is crucial, is it becoming sensationalized, almost a distraction (from other mitigation efforts)?
  • When will air quality retesting be completed?
  • Many school nurses’ offices are either not listed on the ventilation reports or have zero occupancy. There seem to be quite a few that have no windows. What is the next step?
  • Would it be a better use of limited resources for the SDP to purchase air purifiers for classrooms in schools without effective ventilation instead of fans and the planned investment in additional custodial staff for daily “deep cleaning”?
  • Our school is not slated for window fans (PDF is appended with ABR, not WFC) but almost every single room says that either OA dampers not working, covered with plywood, not running or not operational. Is there no fresh air but it is leaky enough for occupancy shown?

Questions About the Window Fans

  • On social media, several parents have quoted health guidelines that say fans should be used for exhaust/exchange—not to blow air in (as it may spread COVID particles to people in the room). Is this accurate, and is this a concern? Will the fans be blowing in or drawing air out of the room?
  • How close to the window fan should the closest children sit or be oriented?
  • Fans and open windows in will likely cause the classroom to be very cold in the winter. How is this supposed to be acceptable? What about the policy of turning the heating system off in the afternoon and then turning it on again in the morning?
  • My husband is a licensed electrician and electrical inspector, from what he is seeing the fans being installed are UL listed for residential use only and are in violation of article 110.3b of the national electrical code, can you confirm this?
  • My questions is the window fans that the district is putting in is for windows that go up and down/ push out?
  • How many “changes of air” do one of those window unit fans cause per hour in a typical classroom?
  • Has the district has denied [PFT experts] the ability to check the fans?
  • How will the air in rooms be filtered with window fans? Don’t you need filters to filter out CoVid?
  • Are the window fan units being proposed as a permanent solution?
  • Should schools be closed for rain and snow? My school has fans (and I have heard they are not designed for use in that kind of weather).

Parents United Response to the SDP Reopening Plan

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.

Continue reading “Parents United Response to the SDP Reopening Plan”

Open Letter to Dr. Hite Regarding School District Facility Issues

Dr. William Hite
Superintendent, School District of Philadelphia


Dr. Hite:

We, Parents United for Public Education, are deeply concerned with multiple aspects of the facility issues notification process, clean up procedures, and lack of parental involvement in the district’s latest school closures. There is a continued lack of transparency around how hazards are identified, and the procedures for and outcomes of the testing that deems that threats have been cleared. We have spoken with parents in the affected schools about the information given to them by the facility managers and they have expressed similar concerns.

As members in the Philly Healthy Schools Initiative coalition, we are attempting to work with your staff to develop effective information sharing, communication, transparency, and stakeholder involvement. We are aware that there is a great deal of poor communication and miscommunication between the district staff and the school communities. There are also noted inconsistencies between the individual environmental inspectors who are tasked with identifying “imminent hazards.”

In addition, there is a general lack of forethought and planning for how to answer logical questions and provide information regarding the health and welfare of individuals in the school communities impacted by these closures or remediation work. As we have seen over and over again in person and in reporting on these issues, the front line district officials are not adequately able to inform parents and teachers about the level of exposure or any potential medical follow up required. The recently published informational videos with the expert from Drexel do not address these issues, instead providing only the most basic of general information about asbestos, and are not a solution to the communication problems the district has had in this area.

In September, the district told the public that the school buildings were “safe.” This was clearly a false statement. After closing a 9th school for emergency asbestos abatement, there appears to have been a rush to open FLC, McClure, and possibly other schools, even when there has been no effort to clean an HVAC system which has been ignored for decades (in the case of FLC) or to meet the agreed upon requirements for testing (in the case of McClure). These are immediate health hazards and need to be fully corrected. It is very clear that regular timely maintenance had not been done for many, many years at FLC, and it’s clear that the necessary work and testing at both schools hasn’t been sufficiently prioritized. Why is this negligence continuing?

In yet another example of unacceptable practices, Carnell Elementary was closed due to a severe increase in imminent asbestos hazards throughout the school identified by a second inspector despite being recently cleared by the first inspector. The Asbestos Best Practices states that between “2-5 TEM [must] be conducted based on the amount” of this “major friable” abatement. Yet, the decision to reopen was made after only one air quality test performed in the basement. It appears from this and the recent events at other schools that this district is not even following its own stated practices to keep it’s school communities safe.

What has been happening with regard to critical school building issues (mold, asbestos, lead, HVAC) is unacceptable. The rush to take care of individual problems in individual schools means there is no transparency, little planning, a true lack of accountability, limited reporting on what is being fixed and what the fix looks like, and insufficient direct communication with parents.

The lack of district communication and adequate testing has led to a lack of trust in the district’s ability or desire to keep students and staff safe.

We demand:

  • Prioritization of asbestos work that includes stakeholder input, participation or involvement in how priorities are set.
  • A standardized set of inspection/evaluation methods, practices or procedures across schools that is implemented with consistency between inspectors.
  • Inclusion of parent and teacher representatives in the FAC/Principal walkthrough process, follow up environmental inspection activities, and development of a summary report that includes recommendations and an action plan.
  • All reports and methods made available to parents and to the public, translated into multiple languages, and in clear, easy to understand language.
  • Transparent communication that includes:
    • Clear confirmation of school safety after a remediation that includes detailed test results
    • Explanation as to why some schools are open while others are closed during remediation that is fact-based, not reliant on trust in district leadership or contractors
    • Clear criteria for future remediation that dictates when schools are to remain open or be closed
    • Address school community health fears without patronizing or talking down to parents and that realistically and appropriately addresses the level of risk from exposures to asbestos and other environmental health hazards present in the school
    • Timely updates to the website pages related to school environmental concerns many of which contain misinformation and broken links.

We are extremely concerned that these schools are not outliers, but just the first ones. We know that there are nearly 200 Philadelphia schools that have likely asbestos issues that could be causing harmful exposure to asbestos. The district’s response to this point has been haphazard, flatfooted, misleading, and alarming to parents, staff, and students. This is a process. Though we understand that we have only just begun, we are stunned by the lack of transparency, poor leadership, and unprofessionalism that have persisted through these facility emergencies.


Leadership, Parents United for Public Education

Philly Healthy Schools Initiative

Since 2015, Parents United for Public Education has been working towards ensuring Philadelphia’s schools buildings are safe, warm, and inviting for students, staff, and communities. We helped to expose the serious facility and health issues existing in our schools with Inside Philadelphia’s filthy schools aired on Aljazeera America.

We joined the Philly Healthy School Initiative (PHSI) in May 2017, to fortify our efforts with many of the largest labor unions: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), AFL-CIO, AFSCME districts 33 and 47, and Teamsters Local 502, representing the city’s public school principals; as well as parent/community organizations such as the Friends of Neighborhood Education (FONE); environmental health groups like Penn Environment and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and national school facility organizations such as 21st Century Fund.

The PHSI’s mission is to take immediate, ongoing, and much needed action to address the threat of dangerous conditions in Philadelphia’s public school buildings and grounds. We know that working together, we can make sure that all of Philadelphia’s schools are healthy and safe places.

The plan includes:

  • Improve the Public’s Right to Know by requiring greater information and data transparency about environmental health threats from the School District of Philadelphia to parents, teachers, and community members. District officials have thousands of Indoor Environmental Quality reports, site inspections and other environmental health-related data that is not easily available, or even known, to the public.
  • Establish “Adequate Building Conditions” that will set minimally acceptable environmental health standards that should be met by every school building in Philadelphia and Best Practices Standards to significantly improve school conditions.
  • Identify and address the most critical environmental health threats in our schools—and develop an action plan to remediate them in the fastest ways possible.
  • Develop a districtwide “Comprehensive Educational Facilities Master Plan” (CEFMP). While most large school districts across the country have a Facilities Master Plan to prioritize and ensure schools are healthy and safe, no such plan exists for the School District of Philadelphia.
  • Create an official Educational Facilities Environmental Health Task Forcecomprised of parents, teachers, unions, public and private advocates and other community stakeholders that can provide input and recommendations to the School District and help develop the CEFMP.
  • Advocate for Increased funding to finance these and other critical initiatives to address environmental health risks in our school buildings.

We have learned an incredible amount of information about the state of Philadelphia’s school building and the processes to address facility issues. We look forward to sharing information to parents and school communities.  It is very clear that a lot more needs to be done to create the school facilities that can truly nurture and educate our children.  Keep an eye here for updates. If you have concerns about your child’s school building conditions, email us.

Learn more about Philly Healthy Schools Initiative.