Opinion: School District’s Plan Falls Short on Community and Equity

By Kerry Durst

On July 15, the Philadelphia School District rolled out a reopening plan that left parents, students, and teachers with more questions than answers. 

As a parent of two children in the district, I was disappointed to learn the district is not explicitly offering remote learning or teaching options tied to a student’s “home” school, teachers, or community during such a turbulent time. Given all the uncertainty and high risks, many district teachers would also prefer remote teaching for at least fall 2020, anchored to their home school, for logistical reasons, their own safety, and the safety of their own children and families. 

To be clear, what I describe above is currently not being offered by the district to students, families, or teachers. Despite promises otherwise from the district, medical exemptions based on a teacher having an immunocompromised child, or family member, are being denied and teachers are being asked to choose between our families and their own.  

If a teacher qualifies for their own medical exemption, they are just bumped into the as-yet-poorly-defined, centrally run Digital Academy. Is this how we should treat the same teachers who we praised just a few months ago as “heroes” for supporting our children, and us, through a pandemic?

I’m worried that in the absence of a remote teaching option that many families and teachers will be forced to either (1) take unnecessary health and safety risks that could largely be avoided by beginning fall 2020 with a remote teaching/learning, or (2) end up in a central Digital Academy ‘pool’ with potentially random student to teacher assignments (or grade level assignments for teachers), limited connection to their usual school community (or grade level partners in the case of teachers), disconnection from those who know their academic and non-academic need best (or colleague support systems for teachers), and an absence of important curriculum like electives for high school students, language, etc (or the inability to teach in your area of expertise, in the case of teacher). 

Many families and teachers have a long list of reservations about the Digital Academy based on the very limited available information in the single paragraph dedicated to it in the SDP plan. Sadly, the Hybrid plan also falls far too short of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable students and families in only offering two days of in-person learning, unrealistic and questionable safety measures, and poorly defined contingency plans for if/when schools will inevitably be forced to close. 

Worse yet, it accomplishes very little to meet the real needs of students or working families, and places the very teachers and staff who are critical to making it a success at the highest risk. 

Each family will need to make difficult decisions as we weigh the benefits and risks of each proposed plan. What I ask is that we equally prioritize the health and safety of all the SDP teachers and staff, as we consider –or advocate for – options. I ask that we stand up for teachers and staff in the same ways that they have stood up for us, and all of our children, over the years! Without them, we literally have no chance of educating our children or getting through this pandemic.