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Uncertainty reigns with Philadelphia teachers getting vaccine

Here’s what we know about the distribution plan

Shannon Smith, head nurse for the School District of Philadelphia, gets her COVID-19 vaccine shot at Lincoln High School on Friday.
Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat

Mayor Jim Kenney says he wants schools to open as soon as possible, telling City Council on Thursday that children are suffering and reopening is “the next challenge facing our city.” Superintendent William Hite agrees, and plans to announce next week a limited reopening plan for kindergarten through second grade students that could begin sometime in February. But it’s unclear if teachers will be able to get vaccinated before they return to school buildings.

For now, most school workers cannot sign up to get a vaccine. Although they are in group 1B, which the city is currently prioritizing, they are in line behind others in that group, including firefighters, police officers, prison guards, and transit workers, and it’s not yet clear when teachers will be able to make a vaccine appointment.

Why is this? One reason is that city data shows that schools have not been the source of significant spread of COVID-19, based on the experience of more than 100 private and parochial schools that have continued to operate in person during the pandemic.

“The health department has never recommended that (at least younger aged) schools in Philadelphia be closed,” said health department spokesman James Garrow in an email. “We have maintained that as long as they implement safety protocols, they can safely operate.”

The schools that have continued operating “have done a good job at preventing COVID spread,” city health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Tuesday. The department has prepared school reopening guidance that stresses social distancing, keeping students in cohorts, handwashing and masking, daily symptom screening, modifying activities, and optimizing ventilation.

Two prior efforts to reopen district schools for hybrid learning, in September and November, were shot down after public outcry that it wouldn’t be safe and the city and district were putting the health of students and staff at risk.

“It is my preference that schools will not reopen” until people working in schools and coming into contact with students are vaccinated,” said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan in an interview.

Jordan said the “ideal” would be for all education workers, from teachers to bus drivers to food workers, to be vaccinated before children return to buildings. At least, he said, “if schools are going to be reopened with any group of students,” the staff expected to return to buildings should first receive their vaccinations, he said.

And Robin Cooper, president of the union that represents principals and other administrators, also said she would like her members to receive their shots prior to going back.

“In order for people to begin to really return to a sense of normalcy, every avenue should be made available for them to be able to get the vaccine prior to fully returning,” said Cooper, of Teamsters Local 502: Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, or CASA. “The School District states that they are essential workers and since they are categorized by the district as essential workers, they should be placed in the category to receive vaccinations with other essential workers.”

While teachers and school leaders are not yet eligible for the vaccine, it’s a different story for school nurses, who are health care workers and have been able to sign up for weeks now. On Friday, the district and the city’s health department held a vaccine clinic for school nurses at Lincoln High School in the Northeast on Friday. The mass clinic was available for nurses at public and charter schools, religious schools and independent schools in the city.

“The significance of this event is now we are working with the schools,” said Dr. Caroline Johnson, deputy health commissioner. “It can almost be seen as the first step in trying to reopen schools in Philadelphia.”

Nurses lined up in a hallway leading into one of the school’s gyms to get their Moderna shots. After their shots, the nurses were instructed to arrive back in a few weeks to take their required second dose. Some 331 nurses had signed up for the vaccine on Friday.

“I almost had a tear in my eye,” said Shannon Smith, head nurse for the school district, after getting her first shot. “The fact that we have been out of school since last March, it’s coming on a year since we have seen our kids. To provide this opportunity for nurses on the frontlines, I’m excited.”

Hite’s reopening plan will prioritize students from Pre-K through second grade, students with special needs, and career and technical education students who need to be certified on equipment only available in schools.

In the meantime, teachers, along with everyone else in the city, are looking for accurate information on when and where they can be vaccinated.

The city’s vaccine pre-registration site went live on Thursday night. Adding to the confusion, Farley said that another registration site run by the private group CovidReadi that has attracted 60,000 signups, but is not currently being used by the city. Those who have pre-registered will be informed when they are eligible for a vaccine.

Once eligible, it’s unclear where teachers and other school workers will receive the vaccine, and whether school buildings will be distribution sites.

“You’re talking about 18,000 employees,” who would need locations “that are in every area of the city” that both have accessibility to public transit and ample parking, Jordan said.

The city has been getting 20,000 doses weekly, but Farley said there was hope for a more coordinated vaccine distribution system under President Joe Biden that would bring more doses to Philadelphia and speed up the process. Biden on Thursday, his first full day in office, outlined ambitious plans to help local school districts reopen, including federal aid for vaccine distribution, protective equipment, testing, and other logistics.

As for teachers who work in Philadelphia but live in the surrounding suburban counties, the health department is urging them to get vaccinated where they live given limited doses.

The city has also partnered with health organizations including The Black Doctors Consortium for vaccine distribution. Teachers interested can register through the consortium via an online form.

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