By MARYCLAIRE DALE
(AP) — A mediator will decide if Philadelphia teachers must return to their classrooms despite safety concerns as the district plans to resume some in-person instruction later this month.
Teachers and staff protesting outside their buildings Monday said they feared the ventilation systems in the city’s aging schools were not sufficient to address the potential spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The school district had ordered lower-grade teachers to report to their schools Monday, but then backed off the mandate while a mediator reviewed issues raised by the teachers union. The district has about 120,000 students in 215 district-operated schools, and another 80,000 students in charter, cyber and alternative schools.
“We do want to work. We do want to come back, but we want to come back safely. That’s all we’re asking for,” said Elanda Tolliver, a paraprofessional at Samuel Gompers Elementary School who has worked for the district for 34 years.
Superintendent William Hite wants to offer students who have been learning remotely for nearly a year because of the pandemic a chance to return to school Feb. 22 under an optional hybrid instruction model. He said the district has enhanced its cleaning operations and identified ventilation problems, and will not open classrooms until needed improvements are made.
City Council Member Katherine Gilmore Richardson, who attended Gompers and has a child in kindergarten there, joined teachers and union officials protesting outside the school Monday morning. She is eager for schools to reopen, but said “today is not the day.”
She expressed concerns about the ventilation system and the lack of a comprehensive vaccine plan for school employees.
“We must have a vaccination plan,” Richardson said. “Where’s the vaccination plan for all of our teachers?”
Later in the day, the city announced a joint effort with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia l to start vaccinating teachers and other school staff in late February. Details were still being worked out, but Mayor Jim Kenney said the city planned to hold pop-up vaccination sites at district, charter, parochial and independent schools.
“As we near the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, getting children back into classrooms throughout the city is vitally important to their future,” Kenney said. “This vaccination program will go a long way to easing the concerns that teachers have expressed.”
The announcement comes as the city tries to regain its footing on the vaccine front after a large site operated by a 22-year-old graduate student awarded the work was shut down amid patient privacy and other concerns.
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