Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan sent an email to all eligible staff union members Sunday night, telling them to protest the district’s reopening plan for in-person classes the following day by staying home.
“I am disgusted that the district would continue forward with a path towards reopening buildings that again puts my dedicated members in harm’s way,” said Jordan, who is also vice president of the Philadelphia Central Labor Council and the Philadelphia American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO.
This comes after Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced teachers would return to in-person learning in mid-January, prepping by allocating as much as $4 million toward ventilation and fans for 1,100 classrooms. “I firmly believe both that this is what our students need and that we are ready,” he wrote in an email to principals in the district. “Will we be perfect in our implementation? No. We will find issues and we will then need to address them. But we must move forward together.”
As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the efforts by unionized teachers have effectively disrupted the in-person learning experience for approximately 2,000 students, prekindergarten to second grade. In total, 9,000 students are tentatively supposed to return by Feb. 22. It now remains unclear as to whether this will occur.
One-hundred nineteen school nurses in the district also penned a letter to Hite, members of the City Council, Health Commissioner Tom Farley, and the school board, demanding that all teachers receive the COVID-19 vaccine prior to resuming in-person learning. In Philadelphia, however, those currently prioritized for distribution include health care workers, elderly residents in facilities, and people 65 to 74 years old.
Democratic state Sen. Nikil Saval and City Councilwoman Katherine Gilmore Richardson both opposed the district’s reopening plans, while many others backed it. City Councilmembers Helen Gym, Jamie Gauthier, Kendra Brooks, and Derek Green, and State Reps. Rick Krajewski and Chris Raab signed a joint statement noting that failing to reopen the district will adversely affect “vulnerable communities” and “Black and brown neighborhoods already disproportionally impacted by COVID, by vulnerable families with chronically sick or disabled loved ones, by immigrant families terrified to access medical treatment.”
As of Feb. 8, Chicago has reportedly reached a “tentative agreement” to reopen schools for in-person learning in the weeks ahead. The third-largest school district in the country, Chicago unions have blocked and protested such efforts for months. The same trend has happened across the country — notably in Washington state where 75 percent of unions in urban districts unequivocally refused the proposition of in-person learning. On Feb. 3, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott of Florida, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Steve Daines of Montana, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina notably introduced the Put Students First Act of 2021 to incentivize states to advance hybrid and in-person learning opportunities. Nonetheless, this legislation seems doomed to fail in a Democratic-majority Senate.
“If you are expected to be in your building on Monday and choose not to do so, you will be subject to disciplinary action,” Chief Talent Officer Larisa Shambaugh said in an email to Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members on Friday.
Hite issued a scathing rebuke of Jordan and his efforts to oppose the reopening, saying prior determinations made clear that this would be the next step in the district. “This is in violation of our collective bargaining agreement and the Memorandum of Agreement that PFT reached regarding the reopening of schools just a few months ago. What is more troubling is that this action directly impacts our efforts to support the more than 9,000 pre-K to second grade families who want their children to return to school buildings for in-person learning,” he said.
Philadelphia’s Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney, however, issued a statement Sunday night informing teachers that they are permitted to continue their work remotely until an independent arbiter makes the decision concerning an in-person return. “The mediation process is still ongoing,” Kenney said. “Without a final decision from the mediator teachers won’t be mandated to report tomorrow, but any teacher who chooses to report is welcome to do so.”
In a January report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation to states to reopen schools, citing science showing extraordinarily low transmission rates among school-aged children. Nonetheless, what is branded as “following the science,” has swiftly turned into “let’s create our own science.”
“As is the case in other cities, in Philadelphia the storyline is teachers unions versus families. Almost every private school and public charter has scrambled to figure out how to get students in classrooms as much as possible. Ironically, and sadly, the kids in Philly public schools are the worst off, and the least likely to have parents who have the luxury of being home ensuring they’re paying attention all day,” Albert Eisenberg, political strategist and co-founder of media outlet Broad + Liberty, a right-leaning startup, told The Federalist. “The idea that we can continue remote instruction indefinitely for kids like this is a farce, and the fact that teachers unions feel entitled to take years off of kids’ educations for their own benefit should be a watershed moment in American politics.”
Across the country, unions have banded together to prioritize themselves at the expense of students receiving the indispensable learning experiences that they require and fund.