Vaccine mandate coming for Philly school staff? Teachers union pledges support

Nurse Monique Bourgeois, (left) administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Diane Kay

Nurse Monique Bourgeois, (left) administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Diane Kay at a vaccination site set up setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa., Monday, March 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Updated at 5:10 p.m.

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With two weeks until teachers report for the fall semester, the union representing the majority of School District of Philadelphia staff says it supports a “negotiated vaccine mandate for staff.”

In a letter sent Monday to members and obtained by WHYY, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said the mandate must include religious and medical exemptions to earn union support.

District Superintendent William Hite has said repeatedly that he favors a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, while also making vague allusions to legal hurdles and staff resistance.

Hite said Monday that the district has not yet “made a formal request” for a vaccine mandate, but officials “have started the conversation” with the PFT about a vaccine requirement.

Over the weekend, the head of the American Federation of Teachers — to which the PFT belongs — said local unions should “be working with our employers … on vaccine mandates.”

Jordan cited that development in his letter to members.

“In order to ensure that we are doing all we can to support the health and safety of our students and staff, the PFT supports the position outlined by AFT President Randi Weingarten,” the letter read.

The union representing Philadelphia school principals also said Monday that it supports a negotiated vaccine requirement for its members.

Philadelphia is returning to full-time, in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic began. Experts say that vaccination is the single best tool to keep schools safe. But with classes fast approaching, it’s still unclear how many Philadelphia school staff are vaccinated — and whether the remainder will be compelled to follow suit.

So far, most school districts have been reluctant to require staff vaccination.

New York City is among the exceptions. The district there told staff they must be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Closer to home, the Upper Merion School District passed a similar policy earlier this month.

Hospitals and health care facilities have long required vaccinations for employees — and many have done the same with COVID. New Jersey, for instance, is requiring all workers in health care facilities and congregate settings to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested weekly. And national health officials, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, have grown increasingly vocal in their support of vaccine mandates.

Schools have not typically required vaccines for staff, and, to this point, most unions have struck a neutral tone on the issue.

The state’s largest teachers union — the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) — does not endorse or oppose compulsory vaccination, a spokesperson told WHYY. That stance largely mirrors the position of the National Education Association (NEA) and other large state unions like California Teachers Association. New York state’s teachers union, meanwhile, has opposed compulsory vaccination policies.

PSEA spokesperson David Broderic said that compulsory vaccination should be approached on a district-by-district basis.

“We’re just encouraging our local leaders in those districts to work with the school districts to make sure that whatever vaccination policy a school district adopts is something that staff members are comfortable with,” said Broderic.

In the early days of the vaccine rollout, teachers unions argued that their members should be prioritized. Policymakers heeded those arguments.

In Philadelphia, the school district worked with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to set up a special vaccination program for staff. Pennsylvania’s state government did the same for school staff outside Philadelphia.

Through that state program, according to Broderic, about 112,000 school staff received vaccines. That number represents about three-quarters of all eligible staff.

It’s unknown how many staff got vaccinated outside the program, said Broderic, but he believes “the vast majority of school employees in Pennsylvania have been vaccinated.”

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

The PFT and school district have consistently said they aren’t tracking the data, a departure from many private employers.

“They get the vaccine from a medical provider or the Department of Public Health and they don’t share that information with us,” said Hite.

Hite has, however, said that he’d like to institute a vaccine requirement.

“I would mandate [vaccines] as quickly as possible,” Hite told MSNBC on Friday. “I would’ve mandated them a long time ago if we could have done that.”

In late July, Hite told the media he’d not yet proposed a vaccine mandate yet “on advice of counsel.” It’s unclear what law would prevent the district from compelling vaccinations. The U.S Supreme Court established the legality of compulsory vaccination in the early 20th century.

“It’s an HR issue,” said Mayor Jim Kenney at a Monday press event. “You don’t just tell people you’re gonna do this or that without having a discussion with them — at least if you wanna be successful.”

At the same press event, Hite indicated that the district wanted to tread carefully on a mandate because it didn’t want to alienate employees.

“With a potential labor shortage you don’t want to do anything that would magnify the problems there,” said Hite. “We have to continue to talk with individuals and make the decision as we move forward.”

The School District of Philadelphia has already said it will require masks for students and staff, making it one of the few districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania to take such a step. Norristown Area School District announced a mask mandate Monday.

When WHYY surveyed suburban Philadelphia school districts in July, a majority of respondents said they would recommend masks, but not require them.

The district also plans to test all adults in schools once a week. The district does not plan to test asymptomatic students, but the PFT, according to Jordan’s letter, is pushing for regular testing of students.

Emily Rizzo contributed to this report.

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