Philadelphia schools saw a chaotic and partial resurgence of in-person learning this week amid a surge in the omicron type of coronavirus. More than 90 schools have switched to virtual education – with little warning for families, after weeks of concerns raised by students, parents and school staff.
During the fall, many teachers and students testified to the serious shortcomings of the Philadelphia School District’s vague and inconsistent COVID-19 policies. While the district’s ambitious COVID-19 safety plan appears comprehensive on paper, the lack of support from central office officials makes it impossible to exercise it in most schools.
More than a dozen schools went without a school nurse last fall, making treating and testing students who show symptoms, and contact tracing, impossible. Climate staff vacancies make it impossible to ensure students maintain proper mask and social distancing in crowded lunchrooms, and vacancies in detention facilities mean that many classrooms don’t even empty trash daily, let alone disinfect high-touch surfaces regularly, as the area plan lays out.
As if these widespread shortcomings weren’t enough, many teachers have found that their attempts to personally practice common sense COVID safety have been hampered rather than helped by school district policy. One particularly glaring example of this is the region’s abusive policies around employee attendance.
Since returning to in-person learning in the fall, school staff have contracted COVID-19, and more have been exposed. According to the latest news release from the Philadelphia Teachers’ Union, more than 1,100 teachers have reported a positive test result during the latest wave, and thousands more have reported close contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.
While a school staff annual allowance is made for sick leave and “sickness on family days,” school district policy requires administrators to keep a count for each non-consecutive day it takes—referred to as an “absence event” or simply “occurrence.” Employees are subject to disciplinary action after three non-consecutive uses of their assigned leave in one academic year. After nine absences, the school district is recommending suspension and termination. To be clear, this scheme is not for taking more sick days than the contract states; Employees can be suspended or terminated simply for using their allotted time in a way the area does not like. The rationale appears to be that school staff cannot be trusted to use sick time at their discretion.
This policy annoys and disrespects teachers who deal with illnesses of any kind, but the pandemic has made it clear that this policy makes our school less safe. Punishing people for taking advantage of their sick time encourages them to go to work while sick and infected, whether they have COVID-19, the flu, or a cold. Superintendent William R. Haight, Jr. publicly urged students and staff to “[stay] at home if you are sick,” however, a system of occurrence is still in place to penalize employees who follow this advice.
Furthermore, there are deeper questions about fairness around this policy. Staff most affected are those who have a chronic illness or disability, caregivers for chronically ill or disabled family members, and parents of young children who need care and supervision when sick (or when their school or daycare facility closes due to COVID-19) . The current system punishes school staff in these difficult situations, as well as insults their professionalism by assuming that they cannot be trusted to use the days allotted to them at their discretion. The district could send a memorandum tomorrow to end this punitive system, and in doing so would deliver a modicum of trust and respect to the workforce they desperately need to retain.
As of November, there were nearly 2,000 vacancies at Philly Schools. This can only be seen as a reflection of the leadership of the school district. Teacher fatigue and staff turnover have been a hallmark of the school district for decades, but its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated this trend from disrespectful treatment to a full-blown employment crisis. By eliminating the disrespectful juvenile system, the School District will not only make our schools safer but take a step towards rebuilding professional respect, the absence of which deprives our schools of hundreds of great teachers each year. If district leadership chooses to appreciate and respect our teachers, our schools will build stability and a positive culture, and Philly’s children will reap the benefits.
Kristen Louppert teaches humanities at U.S. School. Le Fantini teaches English and History at the Franklin Learning Center. Both represent the PFT building in their schools.