Will Board Heed Community Concerns About Reopening?

by Lynda Rubin and Karel Kilimnik

At a remote press conference Wednesday, Superintendent Hite and  District and City officials presented the District’s official school reopening plan. Mayor Kenney, Board President Joyce Wilkerson, senior District staff and City officials appeared, making statements and answering questions from reporters. This stood in stark contrast to the virtual “Town Hall” meetings held by the District last week, which no Board member attended and at which no questions asked by parents, community members and educators were answered. 

The  28-page “Advancing Education Safely” (AES)  lays out a hybrid plan that has most students in school for two days and working remotely for three. The document acknowledges two contributing organizations, the City of Philadelphia and Accenture, a multi-national business and technology consulting firm based in Ireland.  Attempts to find a contract with Accenture on the Board’s website were not fruitful. The Board has not released its agenda for the July 23 Action Meeting; it may appear there.

Having attended all of the virtual town hall meetings and recent Board meetings, and having heard from parents and community members over the past four months, APPS has concluded that the Hite administration’s reopening plan fails in large part to address public concerns.

APPS member, teacher and parent Zoe Rooney and teacher Emily Simpson have compiled an extensive list of questions from District parents, educators and community members.

Dr. Hite, in response to a reporter’s question, stated that  this reopening will come at a cost of $60 to $80 million. But that does not include the financial and emotional cost to the students, parents and educators who will be on the front lines in this battle. Parents, notably those who are also teachers, must also figure out how to make this complicated schedule work and still stay employed. Will their employers allow them to bring their children to work three days a week? Will the District provide flex time for teachers with school-aged children? 

Unfortunately, his approach to creating a plan for reopening falls far short of working together as the report below on the  Virtual Town Hall demonstrates, with public comments limited to two minutes and no response from any member of Dr. Hite’s staff.  Dr Hite’s glib response to a reporter’s question about the needs of working parents–that  “everyone will have to make sacrifices”–was not only inadequate but insensitive and insulting. Sacrifices for poor and working parents, many of whom are single parents, could include loss of job, career, income and health insurance.   Mayor Kenney  responded to a question about remote learning with a vague statement about having to “insure reliable internet access” without calling on Comcast, Verizon or any internet provider to step up for the benefit of the city’s children. Both Comcast and Verizon have previously turned down District requests to expand internet access to economically struggling families. 

“This new normal will not be simple or easy,” said Superintendent William Hite. “But, as I’ve said before, the best way to work through a crisis is together.” His administrations’ approach to creating a plan for reopening falls far short of working together as our report on the District Virtual Town Hall points out. Parents and school staff want their voices heard but have been rebuffed and relegated to 2 minutes testimony while facing a digital clock. Questions and concerns went unanswered both during the Virtual Town Hall sessions as well as on the website.

When asked what students will do on the days not in the building, Chief Academic Officer Dr. Malika Savoy-Brooks replied that options include collaboration with other students, taking assessments, working on assignments, and joining in small group instruction with the classroom teacher. 

When asked about environmental issues, Alicia Prince, Acting Chief of Facilities Management and Capital Programs, stated that “buildings will have humidity control” but did not explain how that will work. Most schools do not have air conditioning, and many classrooms have inoperable windows.  In fact, the District had to cancel classes during a heat wave in the first week of the 2018-19 school year.  Most District buildings retain the heat over the summer.  Will the District clean out ventilation systems before buildings reopen? Dr. Hite and other District representatives have speculated about having to hire more custodians without citing a specific timeline for that. Most recognize that there is no way to carry out this plan without a massive expansion of the custodial staff. 

Chief of Schools Dr. Evelyn Nunez told reporters that kindergarten students will receive Chromebooks. She also said that school water fountains will be disabled;  students may bring their own bottles from home to be refilled at hydration stations. Does every school have an adequate number of working hydration stations? Will they be functional by the time school buildings reopen? 

Last week, the District conducted five one-hour virtual  town halls covering four subjects: 

  • Health and Safety practices and protocols (given twice) with Dr. Barbara Klock, Medical Officer 
  • Instructional  design, curriculum and digital learning  with Dr. Malika Savoy-Brooks, Chief of Academic Support
  • Cleaning practices and protocols and facility enhancements with Alicia Prince, Acting Chief of Facilities Management and Capital Programs
  • Scheduling and School Calendar with Dr. Evelyn Nunez, Chief of Schools

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines  “town hall”  as “an event at which a public official or political candidate addresses an audience by answering questions posed by individual members”. The four Virtual Town Hall sessions run by the District last week allowed for no such exchange. Each of the “Town Halls” followed the same format. Chief of Student Supports Karyn Lynch introduced the designated Central Office Chief. Neither Lynch nor any of the Chiefs appeared on screen during the initial 10-minute slide presentation.  Although there was a signer for hearing-impaired listeners, there were no translations available for foreign language listeners or speakers.  School staff, parents and the public who had registered to speak were allotted only two minutes, not the usual three.  The only visual for most of the session, other than the signer and the initial slide presentation, was a digital clock counting down as people testified. About 20 people spoke per meeting, one after another, with only as many speakers as could fit into the remainder of the one hour timeline. Lynch stated that they were there to listen only, not engage. Listeners had no idea how many people were waiting to speak when the hour ran out.  None of the members of the  Board of Education attended any of the sessions. 

The Virtual Town Halls were live-streamed on the District’s website and Facebook page. For some reason, the sessions were not aired on the District’s public access TV channel, so those without internet services and/or devices could not tune in or attend. The District did post videos later the same day.  A recurring criticism was the District’s failure to include experienced school-based staff or parents in the development of a plan that should address both the academic and emotional needs of the children. 

Following is a summary of the District’s presentation and some of the issues raised by callers.

Overall concerns from speakers:
  • Totally Digital model, or, perhaps, Hybrid, until the safety of students and staff could be assured. 
  • Strong consensus on “total distrust” of the District, especially by parents, to make sure that this process is transparent and works for the safety and equitable education of all children and staff.
  • Concern that parents/staff are not being really included upfront while claiming that parents and community were involved in the decisions.  
  • Questions included the specific science the District is relying on and whether there will be testing and contact tracing?  How can the District make all the decisions since they don’t work with kids day to day in school buildings in order to understand the environment and needs? 
  • Requested a format for parents to raise specific questions about their child’s needs or building safety and to have them answered in real time.
Health/Safety Session 

Comments from school nurses, teachers and parents, addressed primarily their fears about the safety of the children and staff in schools. Many speakers stated their agreement with things already shared by others.

  • “I don’t feel safe”,“I don’t feel my children will be safe”, “I’m terrified”–from numerous speakers.
  • Speaker after speaker begged the District to be honestly transparent, not only for the health of their children, but to avoid communicating the disease to other family members, especially elderly or otherwise immuno-compromised family members. 
  • Several teachers spoke of their own risks due to pre-existing conditions leaving them immuno-compromised. 
  • Many cited the emotional trauma their children were experiencing and need for more counselors, nurses and psychologists to assist with children’s emotional needs. Parents expressed their children’s heightened fear of dying. 
  • Social distancing difficulties throughout the day; the need for more staff to supervise children. 
  • Differences in students’ age-related, normal physical and social interaction behaviors impacting social distancing. 
  • Special Education needs vary among ELL, special education, hearing impaired, etc. Children on the spectrum have difficulty with social distancing. A teacher of K-2  Emotional Support students cited students’ aggressiveness (biting, kicking), purposeful defiance of rules and regulations as part of their condition, and an inability to retain social distancing. 
  • Bus Transportation: cleanliness of buses; safety of children maintaining social distancing amid common altercations on buses.
Academic Issues

Three models being considered: 

  • Face to Face (traditional), 
  • Hybrid (combination of Face to Face and Home Digital) 
  • Totally-on-Line 
  • A “Flipped Learning Model” was mentioned that no one understood what it was.
Speakers concerns:
Parent Involvement and Training:
  • More parent involvement in planning and being updated. Parents begged for information to come soon so they could attempt to arrange their own work/child care schedules.  
  • Teachers expressed the need for more on-going support for the new methods, especially digital eg: “100 slides on google doc doesn’t do it”, but also complimented other interpersonal supports given to them this spring for on-line learning. 
Learning Issues raised:
  • Grading protocols
  • Staggered hours or days in hybrid model; how teachers would divide their time interacting with students at school and on-line at home.
  • How Reading teachers and other supports would assist students during content teaching. 
  • A high school teacher asked how they were supposed to juggle so many differentials, especially how teaching 5 classes a day would be managed with the hybrid model. 
  • How would Reading Recovery work?
  • Trauma-related mental health supports are essential.
  • School psychologists questioned why such a valuable resource as they with their skill sets are not being used in planning; the suggestion of remote testing by school psychologists was raised.
  • Parents of students with IEPs expressed fears that their children would be left behind, especially due to  IEP needs for extra staff support.
Cleaning Practices and Protocols

The District stated that all school buildings would be deep-cleaned. 5 types of Cleaning would be followed:

  • Summer Cleaning, decluttering and disinfecting with available sheets listing work completed and the date done.
  • Preparatory Cleaning – 1 week prior to opening. – anti-viral
  • Daily cleaning throughout the day with the building being sprayed down via back-pack spray at the end of each day.
  • High Touch Cleaning following CDC guidelines including: Bathrooms, Fixtures Doors, Handles and Table tops cleaned four times a day; Sanitizer Stations to be set up at each entrance and exit, outside all bathrooms and at both ends of hallways.
  • Specialized station (an area in building  closed down by Building Engineer in the event of an emergency)

Parents were especially vocal in this meeting citing: 

  • “To date, none of the schools have been cleaned top to bottom”, 
  • The lack of sufficient cleaning staff. Speakers decried 900 cleaners being sufficient, especially in larger schools. 
  • Cleaning every 4 hours could never occur with the current work force.
  • Complaints about a lack of accountability by the District and demands that parents and staff be able to access reports on this ongoing work. 
  • Insufficient air ventilation, eg. windows that don’t open or barely open, especially in 90º weather. 
  • The lack of soap or sanitizer being replaced in student bathrooms in past years; staff bathroom cleanliness. 
  • Nurses stated health rooms don’t have hot water and PPE supplies are non-existent. (Is there hot water elsewhere in school buildings?)
  • Cleaning supplies promised by the district would last only a few weeks and not be replaced.
  • Parents cited complete distrust for the District’s ability to keep the schools clean and safe (e.g. rodent infestations, asbestos, lead, mold, lack of hot water, etc. still in schools).

Note: Ms Lynch announced that the District is  hiring cleaners and asked parents and staff to spread the word. Speakers then asked what would the District do if they don’t fill all cleaning positions or cleaners get sick?

However, not getting it right in this case, it could be deadly.