Philly school board mandates COVID vaccine for all staff by unanimous vote

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY)

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite. (Nathaniel Hamilton for WHYY)

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Updated at 8:48 p.m.

The Philadelphia Board of Education passed a resolution Tuesday evening mandating all district employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The board voted unanimously in support of the resolution in a special action meeting, directing Superintendent William Hite to devise a district-wide vaccination plan for all 20,000 staff members, and some contracted personnel and service providers.

“We as a board believe that getting as much of our community vaccinated as possible is going to be the way we claw our way out of the hole that we’re in and protect our children,” said Board President Joyce Wilkerson.

With the first day of school a week away, the district won’t be able to vaccinate all employees before students return to buildings. Leaders have yet to set a date for when staff will have to submit proof of vaccination, but Hite says he will work with the employee unions on those details.

According to the resolution, the district must allow for requests of exemption from the vaccine requirement, “which may be based on certain documented medical circumstances or sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The District must also devise a plan to ensure accessibility to the vaccine, and mandate “compliance incentives,” “and/or progressive discipline” for staff who do not comply with the vaccination requirement or submit their vaccination status in time.

Hite said the district will work in collaboration with district unions to develop consequences for employees if they choose to not get the vaccine.

According to Hite, discipline might become “progressively worse,” if individuals repeatedly refuse the vaccine. The district might start with a warning, then a letter, then a suspension, and it could lead to a “job action,” if an employee fails to comply, according to Hite.

The mandate falls just a day after the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

As the start of school looms, COVID-19 case counts rise and the delta variant spreads across Pennsylvania, more school districts are rethinking health and safety plans.

In Philadelphia, about half of eligible school staff received a vaccine through the school district’s program with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. It’s unknown how many staff received vaccines through other means.

For much of the summer, Hite would not commit to the idea of a faculty vaccination mandate, citing legal counsel.

The calculation changed when the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers pledged support for a vaccine mandate in early August, in line with its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

“This union has been very clear from the start,” said PFT President Jerry Jordan in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon. “We support vaccines, and we have been urging every member to get vaccinated.” Jordan added that PFT expects the district “to work closely with [PFT] to develop and negotiate the terms of implementation.”

New Jersey and New York City are requiring vaccines for staff, as well as neighboring Upper Merion School District.

Both New Jersey and Upper Merion are offering staff the option of mandatory weekly COVID-19 tests in lieu of the vaccine.

Mixed public comment

The public comment period during Tuesday’s meeting, including just one student speaker and eight adults, was a mixed bag, with some speakers against the mandate and others in favor.

Parent Mandy Lin said she spoke on behalf of Asian American families from a list of schools within the district, in support of the vaccine mandate.

“Many Asian students told us that they worry about the safety of returning to school,” said Lin. “We also heard from K-5 teachers who have children under the age of 12 that they are scared too.”

Lin said the district should accommodate teachers with disabilities or health concerns so they can teach their classes virtually, and said the district should give all families a virtual learning option that allows them to stay in their school’s community, as was the norm up to this point in the pandemic.

Citing logistical difficulties for teachers, the district is only offering families a virtual option through its separate online academy. New Jersey and New York City have eliminated virtual options to push students back into classrooms.

Nicole Hunt, president of Unite Here, Local 634 Union which represents district food service workers and noon-time aides, spoke against the vaccine mandate. Hunt said she fears the mandate will lead to staff resignations.

“We should not be telling people what to do with their bodies,” said Hunt.

Christine Heying, a staff member at Philadelphia High School for Girls, said the mandate brings up “civil rights issues.”

Heying said her health issues stop her from getting vaccinated, and she fears bullying from her colleagues, “there is a growing resentment towards the unvaccinated.”

“This mandate essentially asks me to prove my disability, and if I can’t, I will suffer progressive discipline as personnel who do not timely comply,” she testified. “Right now I’m more afraid of my employer than COVID.”

James Barnhart, a high school teacher in Northeast Philadelphia, just learned that two of his colleagues tested positive for COVID-19. He has already returned to work, and is expecting a class of over 38 students next week.

“I feel frustrated that this could have been prevented,” said Barnhart. He said he wishes the district tested all staff before they met for the first day of professional development.

“I am glad to be returning to in-person learning,” said Barnhart. “But we have a responsibility to do this right, and there’s no reason we should not do more to mitigate the potential risk of this pandemic on our schools.”

The PFT is still pushing for the district to test asymptomatic students regularly. Last week, nine city council members backed the union in their plea for more student testing.

As of now, the district plans to only test symptomatic students this school year.

“The district must take every step to mitigate this deadly virus, and I urge them to make the necessary course corrections in their health and safety plan,” said PFT President Jerry Jordan.

In response to a few concerns from board members on Tuesday evening about misinformation spreading amongst school communities, Hite said the district will hold vaccination info sessions for all employees.

According to Hite, the district’s COVID-19 dashboard will be live by Sept. 2 or 3. It will include the number of tests performed and positive cases in schools, as well as cases confirmed off-site that have been reported to the district.

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