The Philadelphia Board of Education voted Tuesday to let Superintendent William Hite “develop and implement” a vaccine mandate for district workers.
The vote was 7-0 at the virtual meeting. Maria McColgan, who is a pediatrician, was absent. One seat on the nine-member board is vacant.
The terms of the mandate, which would apply to all who regularly work in schools — teachers, administrators, school safety officers, climate staff, food preparers, lunch aides, as well as some outside contractors and service workers — must still be negotiated with the district’s five labor unions. Any agreement is unlikely to be finalized before students return to school on Aug. 31, Hite said. Tuesday’s resolution also makes clear that any mandate would include the ability to request an exemption due to “certain documented medical circumstances or sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Hite said that the vote, which came after more than two hours of discussion, will allow his administration to start talking to the unions about deadlines and the consequences for non-compliance. He also said that the district plans more community outreach to counteract misinformation so “individuals are more comfortable” getting the COVID vaccine.
Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s acting health commissioner, said the city is compiling data on the percentage of vaccinated school workers. Her department can track the status of those who live in the city, but since many reside outside Philadelphia, the city is working with the state to determine vaccination rates. To protect privacy, the data would not include the vaccination status of individuals, she stressed.
Bettigole and Hite confirmed that parents would not know whether a particular teacher or school worker is vaccinated when students return to school.
Having mitigation strategies beyond vaccination is crucial, the acting health commissioner said. Policies now in place include mandatory masking, weekly COVID testing of staff, social distancing where possible, and air purifiers in every classroom.
She added that the most common way for children to be infected with COVID is in their homes, as people may be unvaccinated and lax about mask-wearing. She noted that in the city today, “we have more kids in the hospital with COVID-19 than at any point in the pandemic.”
While the leaders of the unions that represent teachers and principals have expressed support for a negotiated vaccine mandate, Nicole Hunt, the president of Unite Here, Local 634, which represents 2,200 cafeteria workers and noon-time aides, said she was opposed.
Her members are “in the most vulnerable population in Philadelphia,” said Hunt, with many being part-time workers and none making more than $30,000 a year. Many are women of color.
They fear that they will be fired if they don’t get the vaccine, Hunt told the board. “We should not be telling people what to do with their bodies; if they decide not to get the vaccine, that is their choice,” she said.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan issued a statement reiterating the union’s support for a negotiated mandate while stressing that another aspect of the district’s COVID mitigation strategy falls short. He again urged the district to test all students regularly for COVID whether or not they show symptoms. Right now, the district plans only to test symptomatic students or those participating in 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.
Board members Tuesday did not discuss revising the student testing policy.
Hite said that the district would resume publishing a dashboard with the number of cases in each school, starting a few days after students return. That information will be based on staff and student testing and self-reports. Teachers returned to work Monday.
More than 20 people who testified in writing or person were split on the vaccine mandate. “COVID is temporary; civil rights are not,” said Christine Heying, a foreign language teacher at Girls High. “I will remain unvaccinated with medical approval.”
Parents who spoke were concerned about the ability to social distance in full classrooms and how students would eat lunch, when they would be unmasked. Hite said that each school would work out a plan, which could include eating outdoors and splitting up lunch periods.
Jonny Rashid, a minister with two children at Adaire Elementary School, said this is a lot to ask school leaders.
“I work in faith, and I want to continue to have faith that the school district of Philadelphia has the best interests of the students in mind,” he said. “We’re trusting you to keep our kids safe.”