With COVID case counts plummeting, the Philadelphia school district will end all mandatory testing of vaccinated staff and cut back testing of unvaccinated employees from twice to once a week.
In an email to district staff sent Monday, Superintendent William Hite said the change will start March 14. Testing for vaccinated employees will still be available for those who want it until March 25. For unvaccinated employees, testing will be once a week.
“While we have offered this testing service and required it for all employees for almost a year, we will be phasing out on-site employee testing,” he wrote.
Since the school year started, vaccinated employees have been tested once a week and unvaccinated employees twice a week.
The district will keep open testing sites at five schools across the city where anyone can make an appointment to be tested, Hite said. Those include: Martin Luther King in West Oak Lane, South Philadelphia, Samuel Fels in the Northeast, Overbrook, and Edison in Kensington.
James Garrow, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said in an email that PDPH never required this kind of testing, “so their cutting back doesn’t run afoul of our guidance.” He noted that the district will still need to test unvaccinated healthcare workers, including school nurses, twice weekly.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that he agreed with the new policy. “With the sharp decline of COVID cases, we will continue to monitor it,” he said. He noted that health officials say that people who are vaccinated and boosted are less likely to get severe cases.
In Philadelphia, teacher absenteeism has seen a big jump this school year, in part due to people contracting the virus or needing to quarantine, but that is starting to ease off. After a spate of temporary closures due to inadequate staffing in the fall and after the winter break, no schools have been forced to temporarily move to remote learning since early January.
Still, Jordan said, “I worry about schools, we have hundreds of people working in schools and we live in a densely populated city. I’m more concerned about the masks. That’s going to be a bigger issue.”
Garrow said that the city has no immediate plans to lift its indoor mask mandate, which includes schools.
PDPH has four COVID response levels, from “all clear” to “extreme caution,” which guide safety measures in the city. All clear means that restaurants can drop vaccine requirements and masks would only be required in certain settings, such as schools, healthcare institutions and public transportation. “And as of today, we had not met the thresholds to move to ‘all clear,’” he said.
Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said in a statement that the city is still in the “mask precautions” response level, meaning that masks are required in all public indoor spaces, including schools. She added that officials are “talking with both public and private school administrators about what’s happening in other places that are dropping their mask mandate in schools. If things go well there, we could drop the school mask requirement within the next couple of weeks.”
Many suburban schools moved to optional masking after the state Supreme Court ruled in December that Gov. Tom Wolf had no authority to require masks in schools.
The Philadelphia district is not changing its testing protocols for students. It only tests symptomatic students, not those who don’t have symptoms. Students who participate in contact sports and certain performing arts activities, including band, are required to be tested once a week, but can opt out with proof of vaccination.
Jordan said that the American Federation of Teachers, which is the PFT’s parent union, has said that more than 90% of its members are vaccinated, and he suspects the number is similar in Philadelphia.