COUNCIL HEARING ON SAFELY REOPENING SCHOOLS CENTERS IMPORTANCE OF INPUT AND SUPPORT FROM SCHOOL COMMUNITIES

In Council News, Helen Gym, News by PHL Council

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Over 300 parents and staff said their top priorities are ventilation and facility safety, a vaccination priority for teachers and staff, and preventing spread in classrooms

PHILADELPHIA—Today, City Council’s Committees on Children and Youth and Education held a joint hearing to gather public input and priorities for a plan to safely reopen school buildings. Amid a new announcement that a partial reopening of schools would be delayed until at least March 1, Council heard testimony from the School District, parents, teachers, principals, school staff, and PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). The hearing served as a forum to bring together multiple stakeholders to share their perspective as Philadelphia seeks a reopening of public school buildings, and elevated dozens of questions submitted to City Council by families, teachers, and school staff.

In response to questioning at the hearing, the school district announced a partnership with CHOP to conduct weekly testing of school staff as well as 20 percent of students and all students who are identified as “high risk,” and to make an initial round of vaccination appointments available to 10,000 school staff starting February 22. The school district also announced a plan to collaborate with the City’s Health Department on contact tracing in school communities, and committed to a 24-hour response time for all questions submitted to its hotline.

“Reopening schools safely and responsibly must be our top priority, and that starts with building and restoring the public trust needed for a full reopening,” said Councilmember Helen Gym (At-Large), chair of the Committee on Children and Youth. “Council’s forum today allowed us to both hear and seek responses to legitimate and long standing concerns raised by communities across the city – especially Black and Brown communities which have been hit hardest by the COVID pandemic as well as educational disparities long neglected by our city and state.

“Most important, it keeps us focused on what’s needed for a full reopening of school. Our ultimate goal must be bringing our young people, school staff, and communities back to schools that are safer, healthier, and more equipped to support our young people than they were before,” Councilmember Gym said.

City Councilmembers have received hundreds of calls, and thousands of emails from parents, guardians and school staff concerned about school reopening. Over the past week, Councilmember Gym’s office surveyed close to 300 parents, teachers and community members spanning 103 schools across 41 Philadelphia zip codes. Among respondents’ top priorities for a safe reopening were ventilation and maintenance standards, vaccinations for teachers and staff, comprehensive testing, and social distancing and other safety protocols to prevent COVID transmission in the classroom, in addition to the need to restore trust and ensure transparency. A summary of survey results is available upon request.

“We have a great deal of work to do together on issues like how we address outstanding concerns about some of our buildings, or how we rebuild the community’s trust in the District to deliver a thorough education in a safe and healthy learning environment,” said Superintendent William Hite. “All sides in this debate are people of good faith, and we all want the same thing. Ladies and gentlemen, in the service of our children, it is time to start working together to return them safely to the classroom.”

Parents testified about the difficulty their kids have participating in virtual learning and the need for functioning ventilation and vaccinating staff.

“I was glad to see that CHOP is helping vaccinate teachers next week, but they should have mass vaccination events for preK-2 Philadelphia public school teachers,” said Claire Murphy, a parent who signed her kindergartner up for in-person learning at Henry Houston Elementary School. “We also need to have an urgent plan to repair or replace the ventilation before the fall in at least the 32 schools that have been mentioned by Dr. Hite as not having functioning mechanical ventilation. We’re learning how important it can be in reducing the spread of pathogens and giving our children healthy air to breathe.”

“‘Do no harm’ should be the top priority for school reopening,” said Brandy Stewart, whose niece is a second-grader at Samuel Powel Elementary School where Sterwart is president of the Home and School Association. “I believe Philadelphia schools should remain virtual until proper safety measures, a clear and concise plan to address mental health brought on by the pandemic, and a plan for a smooth transition of instruction are in place.”

“We need a plan today for September,” said Amy Henderson, parent of two children at Meredith who asked to fund the plan through an end to the 10-year tax abatement and Payments In Lieu of Taxes from institutions exempt from property taxes. “A plan that includes all stakeholders – parents, teachers, community members, and City Council. A plan that is creative, and accounts for buildings that don’t have any ventilation and have classrooms that weren’t designed for 30 students.”

Principals who testified that they have significant remaining questions for which they are seeking answers. School staff, including maintenance personnel and food service workers who currently work in schools, raised concerns about their voices not being heard.

“I believe putting anyone at risk is too much,” said Regina Feighan-Drach, an art teacher with the school district for 28 years. “The vaccine is within reach. Waiting for the vaccination of all staff members would be the responsible and respectful thing to do… Teachers want to return, but when it is safe for all stakeholders.”

“Food service workers and student climate staff are often forgotten,” said Kiara Coleman, a food service worker for the school district who still works in her school building distributing food to families. “We deserve to not be an afterthought when it comes to protecting workers. We all want schools to be safe and free from environmental hazards, but we also need our jobs. So, like other workers across the country, we go to work. We mask up. We socially distance.”

Medical experts underscored the importance of adhering to multilayered safety protocols within school buildings.

“We have collected, reviewed, and followed the increasing evidence that multi-layered school safety plans—rooted in universal masking, distancing of students, good hygiene practices, and strict sick policies—can significantly minimize the likelihood of transmission occurring during the school day,” said David Rubin, Director of PolicyLab at CHOP. “Our confidence is increased by the growing evidence from multiple states and countries indicating schools can be safe for in-school instruction during the pandemic, assuming the presence of strong multi-layered safety plans like the ones we have articulated in our PolicyLab guidance.”

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