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Philadelphia healthcare workers, college campuses face vaccine deadline. Will teachers be next?

Eighth grade teacher Theresa Polizzi in her class at St. Pio Regional Catholic School in South Philadelphia. 

Though COVID-19 vaccine mandates have increased across Philadelphia, it’s still unclear if or when the district will decide on a mandate for its teachers.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Healthcare workers and faculty and students at local colleges in Philadelphia will be required to get vaccinated against COVID by Oct. 15 unless they have a religious or medical exemption, Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole announced Friday.

City employees also must be fully vaccinated or double-masked when working in enclosed spaces with others beginning Sept. 1. 

Could the city’s teachers be next?

“These new mandates add additional layers of protection for Philadelphia residents. We will need that protection as COVID continues to sweep across the country. But by taking these metrics now, we hope to be better prepared for the weeks and months to come,” Bettigole said during a virtual press briefing Friday.

School districts across the country are grappling with whether to mandate vaccination for teachers as schools open or prepare to open for a new school year. New York City announced last month that teachers will need to get vaccinated or get tested weekly for COVID. Chicago announced Friday that all Board of Education employees will need proof of vaccination by mid-October or they will be ineligible for work. Denver, Washington D.C. and Cincinnati have announced similar policies. 

In Philadelphia, district officials have put a mask mandate in place, but haven’t required teachers to get vaccinated. Superintendent William Hite said he doesn’t believe it’s an option right now. “We keep investigating our ability to do that and just don’t feel that is something that we can do now,” he told Chalkbeat.

Bettigole said it is up to the district to determine if teachers will be required to get vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, announced last month that all students and staff should wear masks inside schools, regardless of vaccination status. The move was an acknowledgment that slowing vaccination rates and the highly contagious delta variant are complicating plans for a more normal start to the school year.

With cases rising in Philadelphia there appears to be growing support for a vaccine mandate for teachers.

Parents United for Public Education, a parent advocacy group, told Chalkbeat that if the city and district have “finally decided to truly prioritize in-person schooling at this point in the pandemic, they must act accordingly” with their decisions about all other restrictions and mandates.

On Monday, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers sent a note to its members stating that it was in support of “a negotiated vaccine mandate” for its members. The PFT’s stance came just hours after the city announced that last week 5% of COVID-19 tests came back positive, a big jump from June when the positivity rate had been just 1%.

Mayor Jim Kenney noted that Philadelphia is the first big city to have 70% of adults vaccinated. However, Bettigole on Friday could not provide an update on the vaccination rates for eligible school-age children under 19.

Masks are now required indoors at all Philadelphia businesses that do not require vaccination for employees and customers. Masks will also be required in all outdoor, unseated gatherings of more than 1,000 people. 

Families who believe their child’s return to in-person learning poses a serious threat will have the option of enrolling the student into the district’s virtual academy, or PVA. The program is expanding to include students in kindergarten through fifth grade for this school year.

Students who enroll in PVA will engage in all independent learning on their own schedule using learning resources provided by an assigned teacher. Families had until 5 p.m. Friday to register.

“Adults must do everything within their power to provide clean, safe, healthy environments for learning and to protect children who are mandated to attend school and have a right to a free, appropriate public education,” Parents United said. “This includes, but is not limited to, getting vaccinated and provide regular surveillance testing for students.”

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