APPS Urges Board to Reject City Health Director’s Reopening Recommendations

by Lisa Haver

Update: the Hite administration has scrapped its reopening plan for the foreseeable future. When the issue comes up again for reconsideration, possibly in Spring 2021, APPS will reissue this statement. 

Members of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools call on the Board of Education and the Hite administration to stop following recommendations from City Health Director Thomas Farley on sending back students and staff to District buildings. 

The inconsistencies of Dr. Farley’s statements since July demonstrate his failure to present an honest assessment of the dangers of reopening school buildings. No one disputes that face-to-face instruction would be better, but we cannot endanger the lives of teachers and their students, nor those of their families.

With Pennsylvania reporting a record number of new cases in October, 38,000 new cases in Philadelphia alone, Farley told the Philadelphia Inquirer on October 27 that the coming winter may be “the worst period of the entire epidemic”.  He advised that Philadelphians not hold family gatherings because the pandemic would certainly not abate until at least after the holiday season. Farley also said that Mayor Kenney’s office was now considered imposing additional public restrictions.  He warned that the City would not be able to handle the testing and tracing required. 

Despite these dire warnings, Farley then told the Inquirer that his office was not recommending that District schools go fully remote—even though the city’s count exceeds the state benchmark for moving to or maintaining remote learning. 

Farley joined Superintendent William Hite at a November 5 press conference to back Hite’s plan to return students and staff to District buildings.  “We’ve been in the epidemic now for eight months,” Farley said. “During that time, we have not had a single death from COVID in a child in Philadelphia. During that same time, we’ve had at least seven children die from gun fire in Philadelphia. Kids need to be learning.”

Dr. Farley is not an educator. He is not an expert on child psychology. He is not a mental health expert. But as a scientist, Dr. Farley certainly knows the difference between causation and correlation. Children are victims of gun violence for a number of reasons, primarily the proliferation of guns and the dearth of gun control laws. No City official should imply that parents keeping their children safe during a deadly pandemic causes more gun violence. 

If Farley did know about education, he would know that what the District proposes provides little opportunity for real socialization.  Young children will think of schools as a place so dangerous that they must sit at all times behind plastic dividers, unable to touch or to share, looking at a teacher whose face is behind a mask and a shield. 

“We know that if we have a complete lockdown and no one leaves home then the virus stops spreading,” Farley said. “We also know we can’t do that forever.”

Farley made the same inconsistent statements in July. He downplayed the need for proper ventilation at the Board of Education meeting in supporting Dr. Hite’s proposed hybrid reopening plan. At a press conference earlier that day, however, Farley told  reporters that the City would not allow full restaurant reopening: “It’s unsafe because people are indoors where there’s less ventilation”.

Last Friday November 6, Philadelphia reported the highest daily number since the pandemic began. Farley reported 742 new cases, bringing the total case count to 47,675. However, neither he nor Mayor Kenney changed their position on sending children and adults back to school buildings. 

The new COVID numbers show clearly that people should not gather in large numbers in small spaces. That obviously  includes schools.   

We urge the Board to publicly reject Dr. Farley’s recommendations. We urge the Mayor to ask for Dr. Farley’s resignation and to replace him with a City Health Director who will speak truthfully and who will make the health and safety of the District’s students and staff, and that of their families, a clear priority.