Students in Philadelphia participating in interscholastic sports in the winter and spring will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption, the school district announced Friday.
Students planning to participate in winter sports, such as basketball, bowling, cheerleading, indoor track, swimming and wrestling, must provide proof of being fully vaccinated by Dec. 18.
Students participating in spring sports — badminton, baseball, lacrosse, softball, tennis, track and field, and volleyball — will need to provide proof by March 1. Fall sports, such as football, soccer and field hockey, will be over by the first deadline, so those student athletes don’t have a vaccine requirement, said district spokesperson Monica Lewis.
Superintendent William Hite called the vaccine mandate for athletes a “proactive move” to protect students.
“Requiring student athletes to get fully vaccinated will reduce the need to quarantine teams, which will also prevent the cancellation of games, practices and potentially entire seasons,” Hite said.
The district said the decision was made based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, or PIAA, and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, or PDPH — stating that participation in close contact sports can put student athletes at increased risks for getting and spreading COVID-19.
For the requirement, students will be considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine, according to the district.
The district has done regular COVID testing of student athletes in “high-contact sports,” such as football, volleyball, wrestling, and some other sports. Students who provided proof of vaccination had been allowed to opt out of the testing.
With the new policy, district officials said student athletes will continue to be tested for COVID twice a week until they provide proof of vaccination. Students who do not do so by the deadline will be ineligible to participate in their sport until they are fully vaccinated. Students approved for vaccine exemptions will continue to be tested regularly for COVID, according to the district.
The district is scheduled to host two information sessions to address questions or concerns about the new requirement on Nov. 4 and Nov. 9, both from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“A vaccinated team will prevent cancellations of practices, games and potentially whole seasons,” said Barbara Klock, the district’s medical officer. “We want to keep our players on the courts and fields and this is the way to achieve that.”
Though there is no mandate for all students to get vaccinated, the district approved a mandate for district workers in September.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan had said the union supports a negotiated mandate while stressing that he believes another aspect of the district’s COVID mitigation strategy falls short. He has urged the district to test all students regularly for COVID whether or not they show symptoms.
The district changed its practice this year to only test symptomatic students or those participating in certain sports or performing arts activities.
“Regular COVID tests for students is one of the key ways that we can not only open schools but keep them open,” Jordan said.
There are free COVID-19 vaccine events happening across the city where students can get vaccinated, the district said. Students can also receive the vaccine at health-care clinics, pharmacies and other locations across the city.
Also on Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it’s authorizing Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. This is the first vaccine for the virus authorized in the country for younger children. Currently, only students ages 12 and older can get the vaccine in Philadelphia.