Teachers, as essential workers, should get back in the classroom

At what point do you say, 'OK, my kids' education is more important than any of these other risk factors?'

student learning virtually
About 9,000 pre-K through second-grade students are due back to classrooms Feb. 22. | Image: Thomas Park

No doubt the struggle is real for many parents and teachers facing the daunting decision of whether or not to go back to in-person learning, after nearly a year of getting comfy at home.

Before the smoke alarms start sounding, hear me out.

There’s no disputing that virtual learning is a lot harder on Philly teachers, parents and students. The question of whether or not students should be back in school yet has sparked fierce debate, but the cost of virtual learning on the well-being of these kids is just too high to ignore.

Philly public schools are slated to reopen for pre-K through second grade on Feb. 22, but Superintendent Dr. William Hite asked thousands of teachers to get a head start on Monday. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the union that represents more than 11,000 public-school educators, urged teachers to stay home, calling the school buildings unsafe for occupancy. So, on Monday, droves of teachers either worked from their cars, from the sidewalks or parking lots of their schools, or from home in protest.

In a statement to union members Friday, Hite threatened some form of disciplinary action if teachers didn’t go back to work, but that was nullified on Sunday when Mayor Jim Kenney decided to back the teachers and ask for a mediator to make the call on whether school buildings were fit for filling.

I don’t think vaccination is necessary for schools to be open and I think teachers should go to school to work and provide children an education.

– Dr. Thomas Farley

In the weeks and months leading up to schools reopening, the district has implemented some safety measures, including installing window fans to address airflow problems in schools with broken HVAC systems. Hite says the district has prepared for reopening  and “worked tirelessly” for the past 11 months, calling the teachers’ protests “deeply disappointing” and “a violation of our collective bargaining agreement.”

“What is more troubling is that this action directly impacts our efforts to support the more than 9,000 PreK to second grade families who want their children to return to school buildings for in-person learning,” he wrote in a statement to the PFT.

What’s more – there have been long-standing problems with school district buildings pre-pandemic, but that never stopped teachers from teaching in them and students from learning in them. Some buildings are more than 100 years old. There will never be enough money to guarantee a completely sanitized, germ-proof and sneeze-free environment for these young kids.  

Jerry Jordan, PFT president, has urged union members not to return to school buildings, calling them a health hazard. That is in spite of what the city’s own health commissioner has said, which is that Philly schools can and should reopen.

“I don’t think vaccination is necessary for schools to be open and I think teachers should go to school to work and provide children an education,” Dr. Thomas Farley, Philly’s Health Commissioner, told the Inquirer.

“If we wait until every teacher is vaccinated to open up school, get kids back, we may miss the entire school year.”

As sloppy as the vaccine rollout has been in Philly, teachers and school staff are next in line to receive it. For many, though, it’s not happening soon enough.

Karen Williams, a fourth grade teacher and head of school equity at William Rowan Elementary School in West Oak Lane, has kids in second and third grade set to start at Rowan this week.

She was out protesting Monday with her coworkers and said there have been problems with her school’s boiler and ventilation system for years.

“They’re just tinkering at it – putting Band-Aids on it, saying, ‘Yeah, it’s enough,’ but when you take temperatures of the room, we know that one side is cold and the other side is hot. That’s not fair.”

I think that people think that you keep kids home and they just get comfortable…Teachers are lazy, virtual learning isn’t working.

– Karen Williams

Williams admits there is a stigma around some public school teachers.

“I think that people think that you keep kids home and they just get comfortable…Teachers are lazy, virtual learning isn’t working,” she said.

“Not only does [virtual learning] impose a challenge on my own children, but me as a teacher who has to manage my children at home while I’m teaching is very difficult…but I’m doing it every day because I want my children to be safe. I deserve to be safe and I shouldn’t have to put my family at risk.”

But what about those kids who are suffering under remote learning academically, physically and emotionally? A recent study published in USA Today revealed how students across the country are failing classes due to virtual learning. They struggle focusing and retaining information. A lot of those Fs are concentrated among lower-income students and minorities, as well as ESL students and those with learning disabilities. This makes the challenge even greater for them to catch up when in-person learning returns.

Let’s have our teachers set a good example and get back in the classroom ASAP.

  • PW Editor Jenny DeHuff

    Jenny DeHuff has been a part of the Philadelphia media landscape for the last 15 years on just about every level of journalism. She started out at The Bulletin, a conservative voice for Philadelphia, then moved through the region as she honed her career as the City Hall reporter at the Daily News, and later as an editor at Philly Voice. As Philadelphia Weekly's editor-in-chief, DeHuff brings a viewpoint that constantly begs the question of a progressive-leaning Philadelphia. Say hello at jdehuff@philadelphiaweekly.com.

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