Danger,” Kevin Spencer

Public school buildings in Philadelphia have remained closed since March 2020, with all instruction taking place remotely. Now, there is a push to reopen facilities, which, as in many cities, has become a source of tension among parents, school district officials, and the local union—in this case, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT). A week ago, thousands of teachers rallied outside school buildings to demand safe teaching conditions before returning to in-person instruction.

The dispute over reopening Philadelphia’s schools has deep-seated roots in public distrust over long-standing inequities and dilapidated school buildings. Indeed, the widespread presence of lead and asbestos in city schools led to a citywide campaign launched last year to demand that area nonprofit universities make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) equal to 40 percent of what they would owe in property taxes if they were for-profit entities to fund lead and asbestos abatement in public schools, a call that gained a sympathetic ear from the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Last November, the city’s largest nonprofit university, the University of Pennsylvania, agreed to pay $10 million a year over the next 10 years (about one fourth of what had been demanded) to address these conditions.

Adam Sanchez and Nina Willbach, two Philadelphian teachers, recall this history in their joint op-ed, published by the Inquirer on February 1st:

District leaders ask us to trust them to keep teachers, students, and our families safe. But these same leaders have kept us in poisoned schools for decades, with unsafe building conditions of lead, mold, and asbestos. The district needs to build trust by engaging in a democratic process to ensure teachers and our union that our buildings are safe enough to reopen.

A week later, on February 8th, amid freezing temperatures, bundled-up teachers held virtual classes on sidewalks and in school parking lots while union leaders, parents, and multiple city council members gave impassioned speeches in reaction to the decision to move an estimated 9,000 children in Pre-K, first, and second grade to an in-person hybrid model. These direct actions were led by PFT; the union represents over 11,000 public school personnel and led notable strikes in 1972 and 1981.

“There is absolutely no reason, other than sheer cruelty, to bring members into unsafe buildings,” says PFT President Jerry Jordan in a statement released last Monday. Jordan’s statement came in response to the warning from school district leadership and Superintendent Dr. William Hite that teachers who fail to accede to the district’s reopening schedule would “be subject to disciplinary action.” Action by Mayor Jim Kenney