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Philadelphia teachers union favors vaccine mandate

A long line of families wait near Cottman Avenue in the Northeast. They stand on a sidewalk next to a grassy area.

A long line of families wait patiently Monday near Cottman Avenue in the Northeast to talk to Philadelphia school officials about safety procedures for the new school year.

Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat

Chalkbeat Philadelphia is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and economic mobility in the city. Read all our reporting here.

With the opening of school just three weeks away and concerns growing about the COVID delta variant, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will support “a negotiated vaccine mandate” for its members, a union spokesperson said.

The statement from Hillary Linardopoulos came a few hours after Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William Hite strongly urged all city and district employees to be vaccinated and said they are still exploring if they can impose a mandate. The union sent an email to all members on Monday.

The union “continues to push vaccination and other mitigation strategies to ensure a safe reopening of schools for in person learning. Expect more from us on vaccination in the coming days,” Lindardopoulos said in a statement to Chalkbeat.

On Monday, 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%. Kenney noted that Philadelphia is the first big city to have 70% of its residents vaccinated.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said on Sunday the spread of the delta variant is “alarming,” and called vaccinations “a community responsibility.” Weingarten  said she favors changing a policy the AFT adopted nearly a year ago that encourages vaccination, but left it “volitionary” on the part of members. 

Circumstances have changed, Weingarten said.

“As a matter of personal conscience, we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates and all their vaccine policies,” Weingarten said on NBC’s Meet the Press. 

At their morning press conference, held to celebrate the first stop of a new back-to-school bus tour, Hite and Kenney cautioned that any such mandate on unionized workers is a delicate issue that needs to be carefully talked through “with our labor partners.”

“Everybody should be vaccinated,” Kenney said. But mandating anything “is an HR issue,” using the shorthand for human resources. “You don’t just tell people to do this or that.” He said talks are ongoing and vowed, “We’ll get there.” 

Hite also said that district officials were talking to union leaders about the issue and “working through the details.” Without a mandate, Hite  said he has no choice but to allow unvaccinated teachers and other workers into schools. 

“Until we mandate the vaccines, we have to allow them to be in the classroom,” he said. “That’s why we’re testing and requiring everybody to wear masks.” 

Linardopoulos, in the  statement, said the surge of the virus has the union “very concerned, especially given the fact that tens of thousands of students are not yet even eligible for the vaccine. Recent information indicates spread amongst young people at higher rates than previously thought, with some becoming very ill. As such, the PFT will continue to follow the science.” 

Hite said the district plans to require everyone to be masked in school, test all adults once a week, and test students who show symptoms. He also noted that the district has installed purification devices in all classrooms and common areas.

Those mitigation strategies, he said, follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, “which has also indicated that the most important thing now is to get children back into school.” 

At the Jardel Recreation Center on Cottman Avenue in the Northeast, families lined up all the way down the block to register for school, if they haven’t already, and to pick up school supplies being handed out by district officials.

“Everything is so expensive,” said Bridge DeVito, who brought her grandsons Jackson and Myles Gnoza for their backpacks, pencils, crayons and other supplies. Jackson is entering kindergarten and Myles is in preschool. 

While she is concerned about the new virus surge, DeVito  said the boys are “anxious to be back. They spent a whole year in virtual learning, they need to know what it’s like to be part of a group.”

Dior Alston came with her son Senon, who is entering fifth grade at Carnell Elementary. 

“This will cut down the costs for a lot of families. And it’s convenient that we didn’t have to go far,” she said. After a year and a half at home, “I’m excited he’ll be able to socialize and see his friends and meet new friends.” 


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