District’s COVID-19 guidelines fall short, but there is time to improve them
“You’re a teacher! You must have developed a strong immune system!”
Phrased as a compliment, this statement is a tell-tale example of selection bias. The speaker believes that being around kids and their germs strengthens the immune system. The truth is that immuno-compromised folk, although they may be master educators, do not last in teaching. Schools are deprived of many terrific employees because we believe teachers, students, and paraprofessionals must be strong instead of healthy.
Fresh off the District’s ongoing crises with asbestos, mesothelioma, and toxic drinking water, Superintendent William Hite has released guidelines for novel coronavirus. They are, in short, not good. Although I am sure that Hite personally wishes the best for all our students, his lack of decisive leadership will only abet this pandemic.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers contract establishes the “3-5-7-9” system for staff. The District tracks “incidents,” which are defined as a teacher missing school and their return (so if I miss one day or three days, I am still docked one “incident”). After three incidents, the teacher may receive a warning memo, followed by a disciplinary conference, and finally a dreaded SEH-204 unsatisfactory attendance document. It is consistent only with the madness of the School District: I am punished for using the sick days I earn even as I am encouraged to stay home if I feel sick.
What is the District’s response to COVID-19? Employees who have been in contact with infected people or who have visited high-risk areas are supposed to submit to a voluntary 14-day quarantine. If they are determined to have novel coronavirus, they would then be charged for all the school days they miss. If not? We have no idea.
People are already scared, which means they are already being irresponsible. For many people, this means they are telling themselves that they can handle any symptoms and skip the doctor. But the risks are too high.
Concerned about safety, some teachers are spending a personal fortune on hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes that are not otherwise available.
As a public school teacher and parent, I’ve seen how the District responds to a crisis: Pretend it’s not that bad, pretend they didn’t know, and pay dearly for steps one and two. Dr. Hite still has time to act boldly. He should suspend the current “3-5-7-9” system and encourage principals to be generous with student absences. Second, he should announce that any staff members who test positive for coronavirus cannot lose more sick days than they hold for the 2020 school year. This would leave employees secure and would emphasize that our first, second, and only priority is the safety of the humans in our schools.
In fact, if Hite wanted the right set of headlines, he could offer to cover medical co-pays for paraprofessionals and other staff who are paid far below what is just. What better way to bring great people into our schools?
To answer the question: I have no idea whether I have a strong immune system. I am 100% sure that I have primary responsibility for a small child. So every day I can, I drag myself to school because I know my daughter could not do the same. I am aided by unhealthy doses of DayQuil and Airborne, plus the fact that on most days, I truly enjoy this job.
This is true for any person caring for a sick child, elderly parents, or their own health issues (many times issues caused by the school itself). The coronavirus crisis has exposed the weaknesses of our for-profit health-care system, and the Philadelphia School District can lead the way toward something better.
Andrew Saltz teaches 11th and 12th grade English and computer science at Paul Robeson High School and is a member of the Caucus of Working Educators.