Parents, teachers chastise district’s ‘terrifying’ hybrid reopening plan at 8-hour board meeting

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The School District of Philadelphia’s reopening plan is back to square one.

The district has pushed for a hybrid of online and in-person classes, but more than 100 public speakers ripped the plan to shreds at Thursday night’s hourslong school board meeting. Parents, students, teachers and principals overwhelmingly called for an all-digital return to classes this fall.

The board decided to delay a vote on Superintendent William Hite’s plan, giving him a week to revise it.

More than 150 signed up to testify at the virtual school board meeting, where nearly all strenuously urged the board to adopt a completely online start to the school year because of COVID-19

Hite’s plan would have students attend classes in school buildings two days a week.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told the board he had serious concerns about ventilation, personal protective equipment, and social distancing in school buildings.

“The plan as it is currently written is terrifying,” Jordan said. “Terms like ‘when feasible’ scattered throughout the plan will literally mean life or death for educators and students.”

Retired principal Cindy Farlino spoke on behalf of the principals union, Teamsters Local 502, which called on the district to abandon the hybrid plan in favor of an all-digital start.

“We do not believe that the school district personnel should have to potentially teach students to death,” she said.

 Alexandra Fields, a parent of two children at McCall Elementary School, questioned how children would be expected to wear face coverings for the entire day in school. “This whole plan is predicated on the idea that hundreds of thousands of kids will be able to keep masks on for almost six hours a day. How is that realistically enforceable?”

On Wednesday, the district unveiled an all-digital option called the Digital Academy. But Derrick Houck, a teacher at the Building 21 school, criticized the option because students would learn from teachers outside of their regular school classrooms.

“You’re really out here telling kids that if you love your teachers, you’ve got to risk your life to go to your home school,” Houck told the board. “If you want to stay safe, go to the Digital Academy and talk to strangers.”

Fields said parents weren’t given enough information about the Digital Academy to make an informed decision. Those interested must apply by the fast-approaching deadline of Aug. 4.

“How can you expect us parents to make a decision between a 100% online model and a hybrid model without being given all the details?” Fields asked.

Thursday’s board meeting started at 4 p.m. As testimony extended well past midnight, board member Angela McIver called for an immediate thumbs-down on Hite’s hybrid plan.

“We just witnessed six straight hours of near-unanimous calls to open schools with virtual learning. I urge the board to reject this reopening plan,” McIver said. “It is a horrible move for us to make people sit through that many comments and then choose not to have a conversation and move to next week.”

Hite, however, asked the board to postpone a vote on the plan by a week, giving him time to “come back with a plan that I think will be more consistent with what individuals are requesting.”

The board voted 6-2 to recess its meeting until July 30 at 4 p.m. Board President Joyce Wilkerson and board members Ameen Akbar, Leticia Egea-Hinton, Mallory Fix-Lopez, Julia Danzy, and Maria McColgan voted in favor of postponing the meeting. McIver and board member Lee Huang cast “no” votes.

Hite added in a statement Friday afternoon: “The feedback received — from unease around the risks of COVID-19 exposure to concerns about digital learning — has been heard and will be considered. The reopening decisions we must make due to COVID-19 are difficult ones with no easy answers. We must thoughtfully weigh what we know about the pandemic from health experts with our fundamental responsibility to meet the many educational needs of our students while supporting everyone’s safety and well-being.”