Philly public schools to mandate COVID-19 vaccine

Tyrone Neal, a counselor at John Welsh Elementary School, receives his COVID-19 vaccine at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
PHOTO: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Teachers, staff and contractors in Philadelphia’s public schools will be required to get the coronavirus vaccine, the city’s Board of Education decided Tuesday night, less than a week before students were scheduled to return for in-person classes five days a week.

The timeline for when the district’s 20,000-person workforce will need to be vaccinated and the consequences for those who refuse a shot have not been determined.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said those details would be ironed out in talks with the unions representing the system’s employees. Negotiations, he said, were expected to start Wednesday.

At least one union, Unite Here Local 634, composed of 2,200 cafeteria workers and aides, opposed the vaccine requirement.

“We should not be telling people what to do with their bodies,” Nicole Hunt, the local’s president, told board members Tuesday. “If you and I decide to get the vaccine, that is our choice.”

Hunt said many of her members are paid low wages and do not receive healthcare coverage through the district. She worried some would resign, leaving schools short-staffed.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan has come out in support of a “negotiated mandate,” but, in a statement Tuesday, he strongly advocated for the routine testing of asymptomatic students.

District officials have said they plan to swab sick students and regularly test those who engage in high-contact sports and activities, such as choir or band.

“Regular COVID tests for students is one of the key ways that we can not only open schools but keep them open,” Jordan said. “Despite millions of dollars in available funding, the district has opted not to test asymptomatic students.”

When the district adopted a hybrid plan for some grade levels last school year, 20% of all students were tested every week, regardless of symptoms.

Christina Clark, a district spokesperson, said administrators were advised by health experts that it is “more valuable for students to be in classrooms receiving instruction than to be removed for testing.”

District leaders stand ready to discuss the issue with the PFT, she added.

Philadelphia public school students will be required to wear masks at all times.REUTERS/Hannah Beier

Christine Heying, an employee at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, said she has been verbally attacked for not receiving the vaccine. She cannot be immunized due to a medical condition, she told the board.

“Mandating vaccinations brings up civil rights and privacy issues that can’t be ignored,” she said. “A mandate will further fuel divisive feelings and rhetoric while doing nothing to change people’s minds.”

Exemptions will be available for documented medical reasons and sincerely-held religious beliefs, though Hite suggested that those who do qualify may have to wear two masks or get tested multiple times a week.

Teachers and other employees, regardless of vaccination status, will still be tested once a week and required to wear masks, district officials said. Students must also be masked.

An agreement with the unions stipulates that anyone who fails to get swabbed could face “progressive consequences,” Hite said, including losing their job.

Acting Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole, who spoke at the board meeting, said keeping children safe is all about “layers of protection,” a phrase that has become a buzzword.

Not all parents feel enough is being done, with some families worried about lunchtime, when students will need to remove their masks.

“We know that even with the school’s best efforts, there will be cases of COVID among students and teachers,” Bettigole said. “There will be closures of classrooms, grades, even entire schools.”

James Barnhart, an art teacher at a Northeast Philadelphia school, said that on Monday, the first day back for staff, two co-workers tested positive, including a person he sat next to during a professional development session.

Barnhart, who wore a mask in his home as he testified over Zoom, said he was advised to return to work the next day. His doctor told him to quarantine until Friday at the earliest.

“I must contend with the anxiety that I could be infecting my fellow staff members or even my students in our very over-enrolled school, including a class I will have next week of over 38 students,” said Barnhart, a supporter of the vaccine mandate.

Officials said they still don’t know how many or what percentage of school district staff have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

During Tuesday’s virtual meeting, board members stressed the need to combat vaccine hesitancy and dispel misinformation. Hite said the district will continue to hold events for employees to provide information about the shots and answer questions.

“We’ve seen that while education, promotion of vaccines and easy access to vaccinations are important, they have not been enough to reach everyone who is eligible,” Bettigole said. “We’ve reached a time when vaccine mandates are necessary.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which oversees 122 Catholic schools in the city and Pennsylvania suburbs, is not planning to require teachers to be vaccinated.

Spokesman Ken Gavin said vaccination is “encouraged in the strongest possible terms,” and church leaders have told priests not to sign religious exemption forms for parishioners.

After initially saying masks would be optional, the Archdiocese sent a letter to families earlier this week outlining a mask requirement. The rule will be evaluated every two weeks based on a county’s viral spread, Gavin said.

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