Teachers resist as schools are slated to resume in-person teaching

“We would very much love to be back in the classroom, but we're feeling like under the conditions that are being offered, it's just not a safe plan,” said Nina Wallbach, a pre-K teacher at Southwark School in South Philly.

Photo by Melissa Komar.

Philadelphia teachers took to the streets last week to protest the School District of Philadelphia’s decision to return to in-person learning for students in grades pre-k through second grade starting Feb. 22. More specifically, the school district decided to switch over to a hybrid learning format, where students in the eligible grades will attend class in-person two days a week, on assigned days only, and engage in digital learning the remaining three days.

“We would very much love to be back in the classroom, but we’re feeling like under the conditions that are being offered, it’s just not a safe plan,” said Nina Wallbach, a pre-K teacher at Southwark School in South Philly. “I think everyone’s under the impression that young kids need to go back because they need to socialize, but of course, with the social distancing rules in place, there really wouldn’t be a lot of socialization happening.”

According to School District of Philadelphia spokesperson Monica Lewis, the decision to return to in-person learning “reflects 11 months of careful and science-based preparation by thousands of District staff who have been working tirelessly in our schools to ensure every school has a wide range of safety layers in place as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Health Departments.”

Wallbach said that two parents died of COVID since the district announced the reopening plan.

“We’ve been lucky that we haven’t lost any teachers to this, but it’s definitely hit our community really hard,” she said. “And most of our students – certainly in my class – live in intergenerational households. So the thought of bringing COVID back home to an elderly family member is very real.”

Lewis stipulated that the return to hybrid learning is not a mandate. Families can choose whether or not to send their children back to in-person learning, and many parents are choosing not to. Wallbach said that only two children have opted to return to in-person learning in her class.

“I think everyone’s under the impression that the young kids are really pushing this,” she said, “but at least for my class that is certainly not the case.”

One of the parents opting not to send his child back is Denis Devine, whose two sons attend Adaire School in Fishtown.

“My wife and I – we never say never – but it’s hard to imagine circumstances that are going to make us feel comfortable this year,” said Devine, who is a member of the Friends of Adaire board, but spoke on behalf of only himself and not the board. He called sending teachers back to school unvaccinated a “nonstarter” and cast doubt upon the school district’s ability to keep children safe.

In an effort to enhance ventilation in school classrooms, the school district is installing wooden boards in windows affixed with fans. Devine called the fans a “low-tech solution,” but Lewis said the fans were merely a temporary fix.

“Repairs to mechanical ventilation systems in 32 of our more than 200 District schools are significant and require a significant amount of time to address,” she said in an email. “In some cases it could be that the parts needed are not readily available and must be special ordered because they are for much older systems. In other cases it could be that a significant amount of repair work needs to be done such as replacing a lot of the duct work throughout the school.”

The school district’s operations team, Lewis added, “is actively working on plans to either repair these systems in the coming months or determine an alternative long-term solution.”

Lewis said that the school district “will not use any classroom for in-person learning unless we can ensure that fresh outside air can be properly circulated.”

State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler and Southwark pre-K teacher Nina Wallbach. | Photo submitted by Elizabeth Fiedler.

Some local elected officials, including state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (D-184th dist.) and state Sen. Nikil Saval (D-1st dist.), attended the protests to show support for the teachers.

“We need to make sure our school buildings are safe for teachers, for school staff, for students,”  said Fiedler. “We know there were unsafe conditions before the pandemic related to lead, asbestos, rodent problems.”

Saval said that while “no one is a proponent of the current learning environment,” teachers and students shouldn’t be allowed to return to schools until they are safe. He added that the district’s plans for reopening “are based on data that is either not sufficient or incomplete or fairly alarming.”

In certain schools, Saval said, ventilation reports for the city’s schools show that some classrooms have a max occupancy of zero. 

“This is one instance of a school where we’re told it’s safe and it’s not,” he said.

Willbach had the same concern.

“Based on the ventilation in the classroom, no people should be in there and those are exactly the classrooms that we’re being asked to go back into,” she said. “The district’s own reports are saying that.”

Despite concern from teachers and parents, however, there is some evidence that schools can be reopened safely, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control on Friday. According to the report, the “first step” in determining when and how it is safe to reopen involves assessing the level of community transmission. Philadelphia County, according to data from the New York Times at the time of writing, has seen 23 new cases per 100,000 persons in the last seven days and a 6 percent test positivity rate. Both these statistics put the city in the CDC’s “moderate transmission” or “yellow” category, meaning that K-12 schools are deemed safe to open with appropriate physical distancing and masking measures in place. 

“The data certainly suggests that schoolkids are not getting COVID at any greater rate than people outside of the school so I think that is encouraging,” said Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University who’s an expert in developmental psychology and child development. Hirsh-Pasek told the SPR in a phone call that being out of in-person school for nearly an entire year has resulted in an increase in anxiety among young children.

“One of the, I think, serious repercussions … is that our kids have not been around other humans,” she said. She called the return to in-person learning “a very good first step,” but cautioned that not being able to see mouths and smiles that are covered by masks is less than ideal.

“We have a ways to go to fully repair some of the jolts that have taken place socially and emotionally over the past year,” she said.

Interestingly, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s elementary schools have had in-person learning all year, while high schools have operated with a hybrid instructional model in which half the school population is present on any given day while the other half learns in a synchronous fashion, according to Archdiocese spokesperson Ken Gavin. So in a way, Philly’s Catholic schools have run a similar experiment to what the city’s public schools are trying to pull off.

“In general, the plans and policies have worked extremely well and have been minimally disruptive,” said Gavin.

According to the Archdiocese’s Secretary of Elementary Education, Andrew McLaughlin, elementary school students are divided into cohorts and only interact with one another throughout the school day. This way, if one student tests positive for COVID, only the other children in the pod need to be quarantined. In the event of a necessary quarantine, students in the cohort will have their classes moved online. 

In order to aid in social distancing, the archdiocese eliminated field trips and assemblies for the year, eliminated games in gym class that involve touching like tag, and have provided teachers with portable Plexiglas shields if they need to get within 6 feet of a student to help him or her with work.

McLaughlin believes that these measures haven’t taken a significant toll on children’s ability to learn.

“I think the most disruptive part is not having a lot of the fun activities like field trips and assemblies,” he said. “The instruction really hasn’t taken a big hit.”

However, some parents, like Devine, are skeptical of any private schools that say they haven’t had significant safety issues during the pandemic.

“There are so many disincentives to reporting” for private schools, said Devine. “There’s money to be made; there’s households dependent on this option.”

Because private schools have been allowed to remain open, “we don’t know what their role in community spread is yet,” Devine added. “I would suggest that that is part of our community spread.”

Although in-person learning isn’t slated to begin until the 22nd, the School District of Philadelphia requested its teachers start coming into schools two weeks prior to prepare. Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that the school district’s “reckless plan to reopen unsafe buildings” was a result of “a callous disregard for the lives of educators and school staff.”

“Our members, like I am, are outraged and disgusted,” Jordan said earlier this month in a press release. “They are scared for their lives, and we are all profoundly disturbed by the District’s threat of discipline for members who stand up for their own health and safety. It’s nothing short of bullying, and I won’t stand for it.”

According to the school district’s protocol for presumptive and confirmed COVID-19 cases, all parents are required to conduct a “daily Pre-Arrival Screening of their children at home, before their children leave for school, which involves taking temperatures daily and monitoring for the symptoms” including a fever of 100.4 °For greater and any of the following two symptoms: sore throat, chills, headache, muscle pain, loss of taste or smell. If a student tests positive for COVID-19, Student Health Services, according to the protocol, will collaborate with the city’s health department “to identify all students, teachers and other contacts who spent more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of the infected student within a 24 hour period before onset of symptoms and report the information to Student Health Services.” Subsequently, the health department “will assist in determining which individuals identified should quarantine at home.”

Correction: This article was edited to reflect that Devine has two sons at Adaire School in Fishtown.