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Maria Quiñones Sánches is the Chair of the Education committee for the Philadelphia City Council. Photo: AL DÍA
Maria Quiñones Sánches is the Chair of the Education committee for the Philadelphia City Council. Photo: AL DÍA

Councilmember María Quiñones Sánchez expresses concerns over racially equitable school reopening in Philly

Reopening schools is inevitable. It’s going to happen, but it must be done right. 

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For the purpose of improving the Philadelphia schools, the School District of Philadelphia and City Council met on Jan. 21 to discuss reopening and more at the Biannual Board of Education meeting.

Superintendent William Hite, Board of Education President Joyce Wilkerson, and teachers’ union President Jerry Jordan have each said they are confident school buildings will open for some students for the first time in nearly a year. 

With a vaccine only months old, and an uncertain future in how it will be distributed to students, Philadelphia Councilmember María Quiñones Sánchez, who is the Chair of the education committee,  says the process must be racially equitable.

Mayor Jim Kenney entered the biannual meeting in the middle of the School Board’s presentation, wherein his remarks emphasized that “we must also embrace the next challenge that is facing our city” — being opening schools as fast as possible. 

The mayor left the presentation early, and afterwards, Quiñonez-Sánches thanked the school board and the School District for its continuous adaptability throughout the health crisis.

However, she noted that she hopes that all future decisions regarding reopening procedures take safety and racial equity into account. 

Philadelphia schools, she noted, in relation to other big cities, have fallen behind in providing children and educators with hybrid models that work, and if the city is truly “committed to children as stakeholders,” it will do what it can to see children catch up — safely.

“Dear @PhillyMayor, I am concerned about our school reopening plan. Dr. @AlaStanford and the Black Doctors Covid Consortium have shown what an equity-driven strategy looks like,” Quiñones-Sánchez wrote on Twitter, addressing the mayor and mentioning Dr. Ala Stanford MD,  a board certified pediatric and adult general surgeon.

Dr. Stanford founded the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, which has played a hands-on role in Philadelphia’s vaccine distribution efforts in Black communities, and has recently been ramping up efforts for equity.

Their mission is to increase education and advocacy for African Americans to reduce the bigger rates of COVID-19 among Black communities.

By following their model of higher emphasis on those most at risk, Quiñones Sánchez believes that the move towards reopening would be safer for all. First on the list would be to create a targeted strategy for testing students. 

“We cannot send mixed messages,” wrote Quiñones Sánchez in her Twitter thread. “Parents are listening, and they will not send their kids to school if it isn’t safe. We need to embrace comprehensive and asymptomatic testing with a real strategy for equity and access.”

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, more than 40% of people who have received COVID-19 vaccines so far are white, while just 12% are Black, while 44% of the total city population identifies as Black. 

This will ultimately disproportionately impact Black and brown families with children at schools that plan to reopen, putting them at higher risk of infection. In the midst of talking about equity, this would particularly affect Black charter schools and schools that are predominantly run by Black administrators and educators.

“We must do better in distributing the vaccine. We must remove barriers to testing. We need the full support of the Health Department to ensure safe school communities,” continued Quiñones Sánchez, who added she was also “very concerned” that the city has exhibited reluctance to recommend or plan or fund asymptomatic testing to further ensure equitable access to hybrid learning. 

“Our schools must not face barriers to safety. The trust of our school staff, students, and families is based on our ability to have testing and vaccines as soon as possible,” Quiñones-Sanchez finished. 

Councilmember Curtis Jones also emphasized the importance of having schools open, not only so that children have the ability to learn in person, but because for some students, the only predictable safe spaces for them are schools.

Jones referenced two cases of child trafficking within 24 hours in the area. Both attempts were made on young girls who should have been in remote class at the time. 

Reopening schools is inevitable, but it must be done in order to ensure a safe space for children. 

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