March 24, 2023

Philadelphia school district plans to reopen 53 schools March 8

The Philadelphia school district will reopen some of its schools, but not all, to early-grade students March 8, Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William Hite announced Monday.

Fifty three schools are to open March 8 to students in prekindergarten to second grade. Some teachers for those grades can return Wednesday. 

Other elementary schools, and high schools offering pre-K classrooms, will open in batches over the next several weeks. The district’s goal is to allow another group of schools serving early-grade students to open March 15 and to announce a return date for the rest by March 22.

Monday’s announcement is the latest development in the district’s push to reopen school buildings, which have been closed for nearly a year. The plan marks the end of a mediation process overseen by Dr. Peter Orris, a Chicago public health expert hired in February to determine if schools were meeting safety requirements laid out in an agreement between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the district. 

The district twice delayed reopening for prekindergarten through second grade while awaiting Orris’s decision. PFT President Jerry Jordan called on his members to stay home ahead of a planned Feb. 22 reopening due to safety concerns, and the district agreed to allow teachers to continue working remotely while the mediator reviewed ventilation reports and other documents tied to building safety.

Much of the agreement revolves around social distancing, personal protective equipment, and sanitation of school buildings. The union zeroed in on the agreement’s section on ventilation, an issue that has loomed large in the reopening debate — particularly following an uproar over the use of 3,000 small residential window fans to improve circulation in 32 schools without working ventilation systems. 

Under the agreement announced Monday, those window fans will be replaced with air purifiers, officials said. While ventilation experts said that fans coupled with purifiers are ideal, the fans purchased by the district came under withering criticism as being meant for residential use and not appropriate for use in schools.

At some of those schools, the ventilation systems were shut down because of asbestos contamination — and union leaders want to know if the asbestos has been removed.

The ventilation standards in the agreement, which identify the maximum number of occupants for each classroom, don’t appear to be triggered until students return to school, not while teachers are in buildings preparing. 

Hite has stressed that the district has spent $65 million on schools in the pandemic, including nearly $4 million in ventilation assessments and other measures to improve air flow.

While many of the nation’s other large school districts have hammered out reopening plans, Philadelphia has been an outlier. Observers say the stalemate is due in part of years of mistrust between district officials and the teachers union, particularly over building safety and delayed maintenance. 

Some teachers and union officials believe this is the time to address the longstanding safety issues, but some parents and critics fear the impasse is hurting Philadelphia’s students, many of whom are children of color from low-income families.

The district said the 53 schools opening for in-person learning on March 8 include: Chester Arthur School; John Barry Elementary; Mary McLeod Bethune School; F. Amedee Bregy School; Henry A. Brown School; Joseph W. Catharine; Cayuga Elementary; Cook-Wissahickon School; Anna B. Day School; Julia De Burgos; Stephen Decatur School; Thomas A. Edison High; Franklin S. Edmonds School; Ethan Allen School; Dr. Ethel Allen School; Thomas K. Finletter School; Fitler Academics Plus; Edward Gideon School; Joseph Greenberg School; Albert M. Greenfield School; Andrew Hamilton School; John F. Hartranft School; Edward Heston School; Henry H. Houston; Julia Ward Howe School; John Marshall School; Juniata Park Academy; Kenderton Elementary; Henry W. Lawton School; Abraham Lincoln High; Alain Locke School; William H. Loesche School; William C. Longstreth School; Mayfair School; John F. McCloskey School; William McKinley Elementary; John Moffet School; J. Hampton Moore School; Hon. Luis Munoz-Marin Elementary; Olney Elementary; Overbrook Educational Center; Overbrook Elementary; Penn Alexander School; Penrose School; Rhodes Elementary; Shawmont School; Isaac A. Sheppard School; Southwark School; Edward Steel School; Thurgood Marshall School; John H. Webster School; Frances E. Willard School; and Richard R. Wright School.

This article was originally posted on Philadelphia school district plans to reopen 53 schools March 8

Sydney Boles