Ears on the Board of Education, July 30, 2020 (Action Meeting, part 2)

by Diane Payne

When we organize and fight, we win. The students, parents, teachers, principals and community members told the Board on July 23 that Dr. Hite’s hybrid reopening plan would put children and adults in harm’s way. Hite and his staff presented an all-virtual plan to the Board one week later.

The Board reconvened the Action Meeting that they had recessed, after eight hours, on July 23.  All eight Board members were present.  [This meeting can be viewed on the Board website. Visit the APPS website to read our summary. Meeting materials can be viewed here]

Wilkerson Reiterates Plea for Fair Funding

Board President Joyce Wilkerson opened the meeting with another plea for funding advocacy.  Wilkerson noted that the state’s inequitable formula results in Philadelphia receiving the lowest per-pupil funding. The District webpage displays detailed information about how the public can engage their elected officials in demanding full and fair funding.  

Wilkerson then asked Superintendent Hite to present his revised reopening plan. She noted that there were working committees that assisted in this plan’s development, but she expressed no objection to the fact that the committees included administrators, principals, and parents–but no teachers.  

Hite Unveils Revised Reopening Plan

The historic and near-unanimous public outcry over the proposed hybrid reopening plan on July 23 resulted in Hite’s presenting an all-virtual plan just one week later.  [All District information about this plan can be found on the District website.]

The revised plan, at this point actually an outline, does call for a phased-in return to a hybrid reopening after the first marking period in November–if CDC and City Health Department guidelines permit.  The phased-in reopening would allow for the youngest and most vulnerable learners to return to school buildings first. Although Hite stated that the digital academy was off the table, there remains conflicting information about whether the digital academy, as presented in the first plan, would be an option later.   Many July 23 speakers worried that a growing enrollment in the digital academy would result in weakened connections to neighborhood schools,  funds being diverted from local schools to the digital academy, and possible teacher leveling. Speakers at this meeting again stressed that these issues must be resolved as part of any plan.  Five of the twenty-six Action Items (Items 15 through 19) on the agenda were directly related to the reopening.  One of the slides in Hite’s presentation stated that District officials are meeting with union leaders on a regular basis, but the question remains: Why does the planning committee include no teachers?  They are the on-the-ground experts. No member of the Board asked Hite about his failure to include teachers. This goes to the heart of stakeholders struggling to retain trust in the District. The District–and the Board–consistently miss the mark on engagement, communication, and transparency.  Is it deliberate? Incompetent?  Clueless?    

Board members took turns asking Hite about the plan. Many of the questions dealt with the nuts and bolts about reopening, including: how paraprofessionals, nurses, counselors, psychologists, and other staff members will be included in formulating updates of the reopening plan; clarification on how a “certified air balancer” will be able to determine the number of people who can safely occupy an area prior to a school’s reopening; request to receive a school-by-school list of how schools are ready to open; and how the District will locate families in need of internet. 

Board member Maria McColgan questioned the wisdom of switching from hybrid to all-virtual reopening. McColgan quoted a British pediatrician in saying  “we know our youngest students are less likely to contract or spread COVID-19”.  This misinformation, repeated by the only Board member who is a medical doctor,  has been refuted by reliable members of the medical community. One doesn’t have to be a doctor or a scientist to know that the newness of this disease means it has only begun to be studied and understood.  The beliefs and information about this disease continue to change as more is learned. McColgan’s statement did not engender trust or confidence in the Board’s ability to decide on a hybrid reopening.   McColgan also said that children can learn to wear masks but did not explain how other students or teachers would be safe until they did. Educators know that not all children learn ideas or skills at the same rate. McColgan also echoed President Trump when she remarked that the proposed solution would be “causing more harm than the disease”.

Two  Board members, Julia Danzy and Angela McIver, seemed to be blaming teachers for students’ varied experiences in remote learning last Spring, after the hurried shutdown of schools across the state. Hite defended teachers, reminding them that the District as a whole was unprepared for the sudden closures.  True, as the entire world was unprepared for what occurred last Spring.  Hite’s reopening plan provides for additional teacher professional development.  

Public Speakers

Although the public speaker portion of the meeting took place during the first session, the Board was legally obligated to hear speakers on the revised Action Item 15.   APPS member Lisa Haver testified;  three APPS members submitted written testimony (Diane Payne, Zoe Rooney, and Cheri Micheau).  A number of school communities, including Carver High School,  submitted written testimony signed by many concerned school stakeholders.

Board Members Impugn Public’s Grasp of Issues

Stewardship of District funds must include a public explanation of the essential nature of each Action Item.  APPS continues to ask that the Board include this information before voting.  

Action Item 10:  Passed unanimously.

Action Item 15:  Passed 7-1, McColgan dissenting. 

The Board had discussed the Item after Hite’s presentation and throughout the meeting, but many made additional remarks during the roll call itself.  Maria McColgan, reading from a second  statement, opened with a defensive assurance to the public that she listened to every speaker and read every written testimony during the Action Meetings.  This appeared to be in response to APPS’ objections, expressed in testimony and in a letter to them, about Board members hiding behind the countdown clock during the entire speaker portion of every remote meeting (7 hours at the July 23 session).  These assurances do nothing to mitigate the lack of public participation inherent in Board members disappearing behind the countdown clock for hours on end.

McColgan went on to double down on her previous assertions that children need to be in school and that younger children are at a lesser risk of contracting and spreading the disease.  She cited her status as a pediatrician, her contacts with other pediatricians and health care experts, and her readings on the topic.  McColgan stated that physicians use a risk/benefit analysis to make choices about plans of action and said that pediatricians believe the risk of children not being in school outweighs the benefit of staying home safer from COVID.  She cited statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics, but did not include their qualifications about the difficulty of having adequate distancing in classrooms. Nor did she say, in reference to the risk and benefits, what  she considered an acceptable number of student and staff infections or fatalities. 

The problem with McColgan’s point of view is that the science involving this disease is not set in stone rather constantly evolving.  Articles such as this Doctor and professor of pediatrics, this scientist and former Harvard professor,  and this Arizona Superintendent highlight that making blanket statements of fact is dangerous.  In addition,  the public’s deep distrust of the District’s ability to keep kids safe has festered for years, long before  the COVID outbreak. This skepticism of the District’s capacity to carry out a safe reopening has been exacerbated by ongoing District failures and should not be casually dismissed by Board members.  One example: the succession earlier this year of school closures due to asbestos.  McColgan’s dismissive attitude toward  public concerns from over 100 speakers calls into question how well she listens to speakers on other issues.  

Angela McIver, the lone vote not to recess on July 23, acknowledged the need for authentic community engagement, recognizing that justified distrust in the District played a large part in the public’s rejection of the hybrid reopening plan. 

President Joyce Wilkerson’s comments mirrored McColgan’s dismissive attitude when she said that the speakers on July 23rd caused “fear” to drive the turnaround on the hybrid reopening.  Willkerson added that she was dismayed to see people had “rejected the science” behind the hybrid plan. This apparently opened the door for Danzy to state, before casting her vote, that she too was dismayed to see that  “the hysteria has been accepted as real”.  

Wilkerson specifically cited the presentation of City Health Director Thomas Farley. Farley had testified on July 23 that Hite’s hybrid plan was a safe one, dismissing concerns about lack of ventilation in many District buildings. At a press conference just hours before, however, Farley had explained Mayor Kenney’s decision to hold off on restaurant reopenings, saying: “It’s unsafe because people are indoors where there’s less ventilation…And people, because they’re eating and drinking, aren’t wearing masks.”  As children do when eating lunch in a classroom. 

The tone-deaf comments about concerns raised by students, teachers, principals and parents reflects a dismissive attitude by some Board members, in particular McColgan, Wilkerson, and Danzy.  Parents and educators have to deal not only with District failure to keep children out of toxic buildings but with a lack of leadership from the City, the state and the federal government. 

McIver voiced concern over  Board Members’ use of the term “hysteria”.  Wilkerson attempted to cut her off and asked for her vote.  McIver did finish by saying there are many differing medical expert opinions to be considered.  McIver apparently understands the misogynistic implications in alluding to parents and teachers, overwhelmingly represented by women, as hysterical.  

Action Item 19:  Passed unanimously.

Action Items 14, 15-18, 25-26:  Passed unanimously.  Fix Lopez commented, regarding Items 25 and 26,  that consulting is great but we need Comcast to provide internet service to students. 

Action Items 1-9, 11, 13, 20-24: Passed.  Item 2 passed 7-1. Items 1, 3-9, 11, 13, 20 passed unanimously. Items 21, 22, 23, 24 passed 6-2.

Fix Lopez noted that Items 21 through 24 were due to principals not following correct billing procedures which has been discussed for two years yet is still happening.  She explained her No vote on these items because a Yes vote would continue to rubber-stamp errors.  She further noted that Item 2, for a playground at one school, was made possible through fundraising at that school, advancing inequity in the system.   Most schools cannot raise funds on this scale. Fix Lopez said that she will vote No on this and similar projects until the District addresses this as a policy issue.  

Fix Lopez voted No on Items 2, 21, 22, 23, and 24.

McIver voted No on Items 21, 22, 23, and 24

Hunag abstained on Item 5. 

Action Item 12, Contracts with Various Vendors for Textbook and Instructional Aids for a total of $12,000,000, was taken as a separate vote because McIver found problematic that the Item listed vendors with no context provided.  She also questioned this major expense to be unsupported as the District enters into remote learning. Hite defended the need for these materials. This Item passed 7-1 with McIver dissenting.  

Before voting to adjourn, President Wilkerson surprised listeners by stating that the Board was planning to make the transition back to in-person meetings for the August Joint Committee and Action meetings.  She provided no information or context, even though  government guidelines still call for small, limited in-house gatherings.  Follow the Board website for updated information about this development.