September 6, 2020

The Struggle for Safe Schools in Philadelphia

The Struggle for Safe Schools in Philadelphia

As a new school year begins, schools around the country are grappling with the decision of how to operate during an ongoing pandemic. Although some people believe children are less affected by the coronavirus, this is far from certain. In July alone, over 97,000 children in the U.S. tested positive for the virus and rates continued to rise throughout August. Already, many schools have reopened for in-person classes, with disastrous results - including Philadelphia’s own Temple University, which recorded 100 COVID cases in the first week of classes. Clearly, the majority of schools around the country are not prepared to open safely for teachers or students right now. Some schools have decided to re-open, even while knowing the safety risks to their staff and students. This puts working class people in the impossible situation of sacrificing their health and safety in order to keep their jobs.

Reopening: We Need a Plan that Works for Working People

The School District of Philadelphia’s (SDP) initial plan to reopen schools was a hybrid model that put students in schools two days per week or gave them the choice to opt-in to a fully virtual Digital Academy separate from their school community. Even with only half of the students at school on any given day, proper social distancing and safety measures could not be guaranteed for the staff or students. At a school board meeting on July 23rd where a vote was to be made on this plan, 153 students, parents, educators and administrators gave over 6 hours of testimony. Their message was clear and unanimous - the district’s reopening plan was unclear, unsafe, and unacceptable. In a cowardly move, the board chose to push the vote back a week, realizing that a yes vote on the hybrid model could ignite overwhelming anger. Superintendent Hite and the SDP came back with a new plan to go fully virtual for the first quarter of school, which was passed with very little discussion or community input. It was clear that the board was eager to not have a repeat of the previous meeting, as only 10 people were given time to speak.

While the new plan at least keeps school employees and students safe in the short-term, the SDP has only pushed the inevitable problems of a safe return further down the road. None of the questions raised by teachers, students, and parents have actually been addressed. How can they guarantee a safe return in November? And what are working parents supposed to do in the meantime? The district has opened access centers for students who need a safe place to learn, but they only have capacity for 800 students while up to 18,000 are still without internet access as the new school year begins. Caregivers who cannot work from home will have to choose between leaving their child to navigate remote learning alone or losing their income. Many families, including families of teachers, will have to make significant sacrifices due to the lack of childcare. While working class parents are stuck between terrible choices, their wealthier counterparts are able to pay for childcare or tutoring. This reality will likely lead to an even more inequitable education system than we already have, as some students struggle to even access their classes while others are privately tutored in “pods.”

In Philadelphia, America, and globally, the pandemic has laid bare the inequalities of the capitalist system. While Comcast gets tax breaks on their $1.2 billion Technology Center in Center City until 2027, the school district has suggested that students who can’t afford wi-fi in their homes use hotspots in parking lots to learn.

Working people did not create this crisis, and we should not be responsible for shouldering the burden created by a gross mishandling of the pandemic and decades of defunding of our public education system. Families should not be forced to choose between their children’s education and a paycheck. For the duration of the pandemic, those who stay home with their children should receive paid leave. We need robust labor protections to ensure those people can later return to work without fear of job loss, demotions, decreased salary, or other retaliation. Moreover, we need robust unemployment benefits and aid - including the cancellation rent and utilities - to help working families ride out this crisis. Rather than relying on Comcast to gift short periods of low-quality internet access, high speed broadband internet should be a public utility provided free for all students and educators.

Systemic Defunding of Education

It is the systemic underfunding of public education that has made safely reopening schools impossible. Even before the pandemic, many schools were poisoning children and teachers with asbestos and lead. Eleven schools in the SDP were closed for repairs due to unsafe conditions over the course of the abbreviated 2019 - 2020 school year, which is a small fraction of the 80% of district schools likely to have asbestos issues. Additionally, more than 150 schools are in need of ventilation repairs at an estimated cost of over $600 million. The CDC has stated that indoor ventilation is a risk factor in transmission of the COVID-19 virus, so these repairs should be a priority before anyone returns to school. While the district has started work to prepare schools to reopen, it is clear that the current budget cannot be stretched to provide the necessary updates to every school. Rather, we need to tax the rich to fully fund education in our city.

The school district is projecting a $1 billion deficit within the next five years. Meanwhile developers are rushing to take advantage of the remaining period in the 10-year tax abatement which steals massive amounts of revenue from the city that would go directly to education. Huge corporations like Comcast pay a smaller percentage of their income in federal taxes than most Philadelphia public school teachers do, in addition to receiving tax breaks and subsidies on their properties. Big businesses need to pay their fair share! The University of Pennsylvania owns $3.2 billion worth of property in Philadelphia, which it pays no taxes on due to its status as a non-profit organization. If UPenn paid even 40% of what they would owe as Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS) it would mean over an additional $30 million in school funding per year.

The Philadelphia ruling class cannot continue to get away with hoarding resources and leaving our public school system crumbling. We need to tax the rich to fully fund our education system, initiating a massive jobs program to repair crumbling infrastructure, hire additional staff and make it safe for schools to reopen.

Protesters outside the Comcast Center with signs that say "Internet Is Essential"
Protesters outside the Comcast Center in 2020

How the Ruling Class is Failing our Schools

After a disastrous 16 years under a state takeover that saw rampant expansion of charter schools, mass school closures in black and brown neighborhoods, and increasingly terrible contracts and working conditions for school employees, the SDP now has a mayor-appointed school board. Unfortunately this board is barely different from the corrupt School Reform Commission which preceded it - including amongst its members several of the same characters who on the SRC presided over these regressive measures.

While working class people suffer from the repercussions of COVID-19, the ruling class is looking for any opportunity to expand their profits. After Hurricane Katrina, the 1% carried out brutal attacks on public education in New Orleans with massive charterization. In May of this year, as New York City battled to control a huge outbreak of coronavirus cases, Governor Cuomo was already working with Bill Gates (an ardent charter-school supporter) to “reimagine” education. While learning must be remote for a period of time, privatized remote learning would mean a death sentence for our already dangerously underfunded public schools. Without student, parent, and teacher leadership, local and state governments along with their school districts, will be tempted to use the pandemic as an opportunity to sell off education to the highest bidder in the endless race to increase their bottom line. A democratically elected School Board in Philadelphia would be one step toward protecting us from that kind of catastrophe.

We need a democratically elected school board in Philadelphia that will prioritize the needs of working families and educators instead of selling off our education system piece by piece to charter schools, consultants, and testing companies! We deserve real representation and accountability on this board, which should include working class parents, educators, and support staff - not wealthy consultants and business owners.

Families and Educators Fighting Together for Safe Schools

Both Democrats and Republicans have failed to step up and support schools over the needs of big businesses. We cannot rely on either political party to save public education. In a city run by Democrats, our school district is chronically underfunded and inequitable. The ruling class is attempting to divide families and educators around the issue of reopening in order to shield themselves from criticism over the current state of our public school system.

The unanimous outpouring of testimony at July’s school board meeting shows that working-class parents, educators, and students are rejecting this narrative and instead looking for genuine solutions. Families and educators want the same thing– a safe reopening– and both groups should be involved in making those decisions for their schools.The School District of Philadelphia is trying to make top-down decisions about reopening the 214 public schools under its umbrella without consulting the unique communities those schools reside in. We believe that health and safety committees, made up of educators, parents, and community members along with health experts, should determine what is needed to make their schools safe for reopening. The people who work and learn in these schools know best what their needs are; and decades of racist funding has resulted in widely disparate conditions across schools. In order to fix our crumbling infrastructure and make sure that each and every student has a safe school to attend, it will take a massive organizing effort with these individual school communities banding together to fight for their collective needs.

Unions of educators and other school staff occupy a key position in this fight and could serve as the hub for this struggle. These unions can draw on the strongest tactics of the Red for Ed movement, where unions organized students, parents, and the broader community into the struggle to fight for common demands. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), the largest labor union in Philadelphia with over 11,000 members, are well positioned to spearhead this fight by organizing democratic town halls for their members and the wider community to come together and discuss how to win a safe school year for Philadelphia public schools. The PFT is currently in contract negotiations and should use that opportunity to fight back against plans for an unsafe return while also lifting up the needs of the families in their school communities. Community members need to come out in solidarity with teachers, taking to the streets and even supporting strikes if needed in support of our schools. Much like we came together at the school board meeting and joined our voices together to force change, we will need working people to join together and demand both fully funded schools that are safe to return to and safety nets for families in the meantime. When we fight together, we will win!

Socialist Alternative Calls For:

  • Committees of educators, parents, and students must be set up to decide how schools reopen. If safety requirements are not met educators should be prepared to strike.
  • No layoffs! No cuts! Tax the rich & cut police budgets by at least 50% to fund education!
  • No faith in corporate politicians! The Democrats and Republicans alike are failing educators in pushing for the schools that our students need. We need a new party beholden to working people!
  • Access to high quality, free internet!
  • Our school infrastructure is crumbling. We need a massive jobs program to revamp school infrastructure!
  • Educator unions should rapidly launch organizing drives in charter schools and non-union schools.
  • Link with public sector unions facing vicious cuts to fight for the working and living conditions we need!