Superintendent William Hite said Thursday that the Philadelphia School District has taken enough precautions to make schools safe. “Safety and choice are the two pillars of the (school reopening) plans we’ve created,” he said.
According to a Childbeat report, over 2,000 teachers are set to return to buildings Monday and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) has asked for a third-party evaluation of whether classrooms meet high enough safety standards for students and teachers to start working this month for in-person learning.
PFT President Jerry Jordan said he requested the evaluation because there are a number of unresolved ventilation issues. “Due to ongoing ventilation issues amidst a global pandemic, I cannot, at this time, say schools are safe to reopen,” Jordan said in an email to his members Wednesday night.
The union is seeking the assessment under a school safety memorandum of agreement it reached with the district in the fall.
Hite said that he welcomes the evaluation while expressing confidence on the plans to circulate fresh air in buildings and other protocols including frequent and random testing for the virus.
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According to the agreement, the third party will be appointed by the city’s Department of Labor. It is likely to be a labor mediator versed in issues of workplace safety.
Hite said he didn’t expect the third-party intervention to be complete by Monday, and that while the process could possibly delay the return of students, “it will not delay our expectations for teachers to be in classrooms and they would only be in the classroom by themselves.” Ventilation is of particular concern when there are many people congregating together.
The district has been doing air tests in its buildings to determine adequate ventilation levels to support occupancy by multiple people.
However, Jordan said that school reports on ventilation “are in many cases incomplete.”
“A good faith effort”
The district has purchased window fans to recirculate air in some classrooms in at least 19 elementary school buildings that do not have adequate ventilation systems. The fans have been criticized and ridiculed as a flimsy solution to a serious problem.
Hite defended the fans, calling them “a good faith effort we’re making to introduce fresh air” into classrooms.
He also explained that principals, cleaners, custodians, and food service workers have already been working in school buildings for weeks and that the district has been and will continue regular COVID-19 testing for those in buildings. He reiterated that all building occupants are expected to observe other protocols, including wearing a mask, frequent handwashing, and social distancing.