What You Need to Know about the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ Showdown with the School District

PHILADELPHIA — Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) went toe-to-toe with the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) last week in protest of the district’s efforts to reopen school buildings for in-person learning before the end of the month.

Despite a previous agreement with the leadership of the PFT, Superintendent of the SDP William Hite Jr. released a statement on Jan. 26 announcing the district’s plan to begin phasing students into hybrid learning on Feb. 22, and that educators would return on Feb. 8 “to prepare to welcome students.” As a result of the struggle between the PFT and the SDP, that plan has since been delayed so that students enrolled in hybrid learning are expected to return March 1.

The problem is that Philly’s school buildings, which have not been occupied by students or PFT members since March 16 of last year, remain unsafe for students and staff to return, according to Jerry T. Jordan, President of the PFT, in a statement released Feb. 5. 

“Other than sheer cruelty and a callous disregard for the lives of educators and school staff,” Jordan wrote, “I can’t think of another reason to push forward with a reckless plan to reopen unsafe buildings for thousands of staff on Monday [Feb. 8].”

The statement also called for PFT members to refuse to enter the buildings on the 8th and continue to teach their students remotely until working conditions are safe, as is their right as workers, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

On the morning of February 8th, educators persevered through sub-freezing temperatures, setting up their virtual classrooms in the parking lots or in their cars rather than entering the school buildings. 

Members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) went out that morning to support educators and express their solidarity — bringing hand warmers, hot coffee, food, and other supplies to endure the cold weather — and spoke with them about their ongoing struggle for better working conditions.

“We’re out here, not because we don’t want to go in the buildings and teach our children,” said Donna, a rank and file PFT member at Henry C. Lea Elementary. “We want to do that, but the buildings are not safe.”

This shocking development to reopen the schools flies in the face of a memorandum of agreement signed by the executive officers of the PFT and SDP in Nov. 2020 that outlined the prerequisites for a safe return to in-person education.

This agreement states that classes should remain online and remote until the COVID-19 transmission rate is below 100 cases per 100,000 residents. During last week’s showdown, the transmission rate was as high as 6,763 cases per 100,000 (data available here).

The agreement also sought to address some of the longstanding infrastructural issues in Philadelphia school buildings. Philly’s public schools have countless reported instances of lead, asbestos, and pests, which places those who occupy the halls and classrooms on a daily basis at great risk of long term health issues.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, proper ventilation of the school buildings is another critical safety issue, as ventilation reduces the concentration of viral particles in the air of indoor spaces, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

The reality is that the SDP has had ten months and millions of dollars at their disposal to address the many problems with the buildings and make them safe for students to return as COVID still spreads throughout the city. But their response has been to blatantly disregard the safety and well being of our city’s children, their families, and the dedicated educators and staff that serve them.

“Again, let me be very clear: our membership wants to be in buildings —  when it is safe to do so,” said Jordan in the PFT statement. “The PFT has engaged in months of good faith efforts to develop a plan for reopening safely, and we remain committed to doing just that.”

In an inadequate effort to improve ventilation, the SDP installed window fans in classrooms that are designed for domestic use.

“You’re [the SDP] putting fans in the windows. What are they [the children] supposed to do?” said Donna in frustration. “Be in the cold? What happens when it rains? When it snows?”

February 8th at 4 p.m., teachers, counselors, nurses, faculty, and community members gathered at 440 N Broad St. to make their demands for safe schools once again, chanting, “Ventilation! Vaccination! Healthy, healthy education!” and “Whose schools? Our schools! Not until it’s safe!”

“Most of the teachers are adamantly against going back,” said Kate, a rank and file member of PFT present Monday afternoon. “People say, ‘Oh, the teachers are lazy.’ No! We just know what the inside of those buildings look like. We also know that they need to clean the buildings, they need to overhaul the buildings, they need to give us the buildings our kids deserve now.”

“Our school district is spending unnecessary amounts of money on things that we don’t need, rather than the things we do,” said one member of Philadelphia Student Union, who spoke before the crowd Monday afternoon. “So I feel as though it’s time to make a change.”

When asked what that money should be going toward, she responded, “Our ventilation systems, cleaning up our schools, making sure that we have the proper equipment to even go back into schools.”

Rather than prioritize the lives and well-being of the residents of Philadelphia, the SDP has (like the city and federal governments) done the bare minimum to address the COVID-19 pandemic. For the wealthy, the system is working just fine. And it is the wealthy that control Philly’s Democratic Party political machine—a machine that maintains profits for private interests and preserves the status quo.

This attempt to fill schools with students and educators has come only weeks after the Philadelphia area experienced the largest spike in COVID-19 cases since Spring 2020 (link to data here), and at same time as new variants of the virus have been detected in Pennsylvania, according to the CDC.

(Data on this chart was recorded 2/12/21)

On Sunday Feb. 7, PFT tweeted that Mayor Kenney’s office intervened in the conflict after PFT executives requested that a third party mediator determine whether or not the schools are safe to return. 

The request for the third party mediator has been approved and educators that do not wish to return to the buildings are free to continue teaching remotely.

The SDP announced on Feb. 17 that, due to the request for third party mediation by the PFT, the plans to reopen for hybrid learning have been delayed so that students would return on March 1. 

In the statement, Superintendent Hite framed the delay to the district’s plans as “disappointing news.”

Following the news, PFT leadership released a statement saying the district did the right thing delaying the opening of schools, and that the position of the PFT regarding the safety conditions of the buildings remain unchanged.

“It is unfortunate and disappointing that Dr. Hite lays the blame squarely on the PFT for utilizing a process to which he agreed, and a process that is designed to keep students and staff safe,” Jordan wrote. “Students and staff cannot learn and teach if they are ill or worse.”

The struggle continues. While this is no doubt a victory for the PFT in their immediate fight, we, as socialists, recognize this quick intervention by the city to be an attempt to give short-term concessions to douse the fire of public outrage, rather than address the fundamental problems within Philadelphia schools or concede that their efforts to make them safe thus far have been negligible.

PFT membership has made it clear: COVID-19, while a major problem on its own, did not cause all the safety issues within the schools, it merely exacerbated them. The fight for safe schools in Philly has a long history and is ongoing. 

The Philadelphia Liberation Center stands firmly in solidarity with the rank and file members of the PFT, and will continue to struggle alongside educators and working class Philadelphians in an effort to make schools safe for the children of this city.

Those interested in getting involved in this struggle can show support by contacting the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Caucus of Working Educators.

#SolidarityForever #NotUntilItsSafe #PlanNotFan #DontBelieveTheHite