Requiring vaccines remains uncertain as Philadelphia school reopening nears

Parents and children line up Monday, Aug. 9, to at Jardel Recreation Center in North Philadelphia to register for school and receive free supplies.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Twelve-year-old Joseph Martinez is vaccinated against the coronavirus — but he is still worried about returning to Woodrow Wilson Middle School later this month.

“I’m not comfortable going to 7th grade in-person because I might get sick,” he said. “I’m a little scared to go.”

As a full reopening nears for Philadelphia schools, anxieties persist among students, families and teachers, particularly in light of a Delta-fueled rise in COVID-19 infections and with children under the age of 12 not yet eligible for a vaccine.

Conversations have just begun over whether teachers and other staff in the city’s public schools will be required to get inoculated, according to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Jerry Jordan, the union’s president, wrote in a message to members Monday that the PFT is “fully prepared to support a negotiated vaccine mandate.”

“This will include important exemptions for medical and religious reasons, and as all items related to working conditions, must be implemented utilizing the collective bargaining process,” Jordan said.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite caused some consternation last week when MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle asked him whether “challenges like a teacher’s union” were preventing a vaccine mandate.

Hite responded by saying he would have mandated the shots “a long time ago” if it was solely up to him, a stance he reiterated Monday.

He told reporters that conversations have been ongoing about a vaccine requirement but said the discussion has not been part of ongoing contract negotiations with the PFT.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite speaks Monday, Aug. 9, during the first stop of the district’s bus tour at Jardel Recreation Center in Northeast Philadelphia.PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

About 60% of school district employees were vaccinated earlier this year through a partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and others may have procured a shot on their own.

Over the weekend, the union’s national president, Randi Weingarten, came out in support of a mandate to help protect children too young to be vaccinated.

No decision has been made yet on if the city will require municipal workers to get inoculated.

“We’re having that discussion now,” Mayor Jim Kenney said Monday.

Masks will be mandatory for students and teachers, regardless of vaccination status, when Philadelphia public schools reopen Aug. 31.

Vaccinated and unvaccinated teachers and staff will be tested on a weekly basis, and, under the district’s current policy, students who show symptoms will also be swabbed.

Students who participate in high-contact sports and certain other activities, such as band and choir, will be tested once or twice a week unless they decide to opt out by proving they are vaccinated.

In addition, air purifiers are being installed at every school and cleaning and sanitizing efforts will be in place, officials have said.

Families who are uncomfortable with in-person classes can enroll their children in a 100% virtual option by going to pva.philasd.org. The deadline to register for that program is Friday.

Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is not planning to require mask wearing for high school students, though administrators said in a recent letter to parents that the policy is “subject to change.”

Vaccination opportunities will be available at every school, and those who have not been inoculated may be forced to quarantine if they are exposed to someone who tests positive.

Guidance for elementary schools is expected to be released in the coming days, Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin told Metro.

Mayor Jim Kenney greets a student Monday, Aug. 9, during a back-to-school event at Jardel Recreation Center in Northeast Philadelphia.PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

The School District of Philadelphia kicked off a back-to-school bus tour Monday, with its first stop at Jardel Recreation Center in Northeast Philadelphia.

Parents and children lined up on Cottman Avenue to ask questions, enroll in school, sign up for a parent portal and get a free backpack with supplies. State-mandated immunizations, a category that does not include the COVID-19 vaccine, were also offered.

“We know that families and students want to hear information directly from us, the school district,” Hite said.

Erica Arroyo came to get details on the portal and wanted to get backpacks for her children, Elena and Emilio, who are entering kindergarten and pre-K.

“I definitely think in-person is a lot better,” she said. “I did my best, but I’m not a teacher.”


Metro is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Phillya collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow on Twitter at @BrokeInPhilly.

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