Upper Merion schools say employees must be vaccinated, or tested twice weekly

The skyline in Philadelphia is pictured along the Schuylkill River

This photo shows the skyline in Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River, Thursday, May 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Updated at 4:33 p.m.

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Teachers and staff in the Upper Merion Area School District must get the COVID-19 vaccine or be required to get tested for the coronavirus twice a week and wear masks, under a policy approved by the school board Monday night.

Since the policy, approved in an 8-0 vote, is not a vaccine mandate, it does not require collective bargaining with the unions representing employees of the Montgomery County district. As first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the policy may be the first among the region’s school districts. The Inquirer reported that the union that represents the district’s teachers and other professional staff are in full support of the policy

The school board resolution notes that “positivity rate trends appear to be changing as the delta variant of COVID-19 is becoming the dominant virus spread both regionally and nationally.”

In an interview with WHYY News Tuesday, Board President Gary Ledebur said, “Our school board is charged with protecting the health and safety of our 4,500 students, and we believe that this is a step that will help assure our students are healthy and safe.”

Ledebur said he believes that about 80% of the district’s teachers have been vaccinated, but that fewer than 60% of other employees, such as custodians and food service workers, have been. The district is surveying its employees on their vaccination status, with responses due by Aug. 13 and proof of vaccination required. Those who do not respond will be deemed unvaccinated and must abide by masking and testing requirements when classes begin. The school board will provide COVID-19 testing at its own expense.

The district is allowing for religious and medical exemptions. Administrators will be “empowered to make modifications to the school discipline code” to make decisions for handling violations, according to the board’s resolution.

The district offers free vaccinations for students who are eligible, and Ledebur said many have already taken part in that program. Upper Merion also is encouraging students to wear masks, particularly those who are not vaccinated.

“We have an opportunity to stem this rising tide, particularly the delta variant, and getting vaccinated seems to be the best way to stem that surge,” Ledebur said.

Philly sees delta variant’s effects: More COVID cases, faster

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Philadelphia as the delta variant becomes the dominant strain of the virus, the city’s top health official said Tuesday. Though the numbers aren’t the worst Philadelphia has ever seen, they do mirror the surge of cases the city faced last summer, she said.

At a news briefing, Acting Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said she is not just concerned about the number of positive cases or the number of hospitalizations, but also how quickly those numbers have risen. They doubled between July 12 and 19, and doubled again between July 19 and Aug. 1. Over the last two weeks, there have been 119 new cases per day in the city, with the greatest increase among adults between the ages of 20 and 34.

Because of that, the city will once again post vaccine and testing data on the phila.gov/covid website each weekday, announce case numbers on its Twitter account each weekday, and reinstate weekly press conferences.

The city strongly recommends mask-wearing indoors, regardless of a person’s vaccination status. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors because of the delta variant, the City of Philadelphia is not requiring it. Businesses can still mandate that customers and staff wear masks, however.

“We need to come together as a city once again to fight back against this new surge. But this time, we have better weapons. We understand the virus better, how it spreads, how we can protect each other and ourselves. And we have plenty of safe, effective, free vaccines available all over our city to protect us,” Bettigole said.

“I’m going to be completely open here, being fully vaccinated doesn’t mean you can’t get COVID — you still can. But your chances of getting COVID are much lower, only about one-eighth the chance of someone who is unvaccinated, and being fully vaccinated means you’re much, much likely, by 25 times less likely, to get seriously sick or end up in the hospital if you do get COVID.”

Bettigole also urged people to wear masks in public spaces, whether they’ve been vaccinated or not, and to avoid large crowds, get tested if they have symptoms, and isolate if they get positive results.

“If we do all of these things, we can stop the rise in cases before it gets worse,” she said. “We are all tired of this pandemic, and the social isolation it has brought has also brought a real risk to people. So keep in mind the ways of socializing that are safer.”

Bettigole recommended that people engage in outdoor activities and gather with those who have been vaccinated.

She would not say whether old restrictions could be reinstated.

“I can’t tell you the guidance won’t change, one of the things we’ve all learned with this pandemic is that the things we know today change tomorrow,” Bettigole said. “I will tell you our commitment is to keep Philadelphians safe, but also to keep the restrictions to the minimum that’s necessary for that safety … we’re not looking to make people’s lives miserable, so we’ll try to do what’s necessary but to minimize restrictions where possible.”

The city is encouraging vaccination by hosting pop-up clinics, a partnership with the school district to get teens vaccinated before school starts, and incentives with CDC funding.

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