Garnet Valley School District Superintendent Marc Bertrando was thrilled when he learned local health officials planned to start vaccinating Delaware County teachers against the coronavirus in February, with clinics at four schools over consecutive weekends.
In March, educators would get the second doses required to complete inoculation — enabling schools like Bertrando’s to open more fully for in-person instruction this spring.
There was just one problem: The county didn’t have the doses to move forward, officials said.
As the pandemic continues to disrupt education — with many area schools offering in-person instruction only part-time or operating entirely online — it’s unclear when teachers around the Philadelphia region will be vaccinated. That’s adding uncertainty to when life will return to something resembling normal for children, their parents, and the broader community.
Inadequate supply and an expansion of residents eligible for inoculation during the first round — a group that doesn’t include most teachers — have created “a double whammy for the education community,” said Jeanne Casner, the Chester County health director, whose department also serves Delaware County.
With limited access to vaccines, health experts say, schools should be considering other strategies — including ramping up COVID-19 testing for students and staff — to improve safety while moving toward more in-person instruction.
“I no longer think keeping schools closed — if they have a strong safety plan, strong leaders, and strong guidance — is needed,” Susan Coffin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, said Friday during a discussion hosted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab, a research group that has influenced local school reopening plans.
Still, school leaders worry the vaccine shortage threatens to complicate matters. While some local schools have reopened in person five days a week, others have been limiting the number of students in schools due to social distancing guidelines. If teachers are vaccinated, some officials expect they could reduce the spacing between students — allowing more children to attend in person.
In the Philadelphia School District, where schools have been fully virtual since last March, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said any return to school is not dependent on vaccines.
But teachers’ union president Jerry Jordan said every employee who comes into contact with children should be fully vaccinated before a return to school buildings. “The vaccine can’t be ignored,” Jordan said Friday. “It has to be part of the solution.” A Philadelphia Department of Public Health spokesperson said the city anticipates it won’t have enough vaccine to offer teachers “for another month or two.”
“This is our only shot at getting kids in,” said Bertrando, who last week asked families to contact state health officials and request more vaccines for Delaware County.
“We’ve spent a year now hearing … ‘Kids have to be in school. It’s a priority,’” he said. “Now, all of a sudden, it’s not a priority.”
County officials say vaccine doses allocated by the state have been in short supply, and they aren’t sure when they’ll be able to move on to vaccinating people in Pennsylvania’s 1B category, which includes educators. The issue was exacerbated by the addition last week of people 65 and older to the 1A category, an expansion that bumped teachers further down the list. (Philadelphia, which receives vaccines directly from the federal government and is operating independently from the state, also has limited doses and says it’s currently prioritizing first responders and people in congregate care settings.)
While Montgomery County has vaccinated school nurses, special-education teachers, and aides — a group that has close contact with students — “in terms of vaccinating all of our teachers, which had been our plan, we don’t have the ability to do that right now,” Val Arkoosh, chair of the county commissioners, told reporters Wednesday.
Casner said Thursday that she “couldn’t guess anymore” about when teachers in Chester and Delaware Counties would receive vaccines.
“It’s not going to happen probably in the next month,” Casner said. Chester County needs an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 vaccines for its K-12 teachers and child care staff to receive their first doses. It received 2,500 doses last week.
Some local officials have questioned whether the state is fairly directing resources to area communities.
Arkoosh “believes that Montgomery County is receiving a disproportionately smaller number of doses compared with other counties, based on our demographics,” Lower Merion School District Superintendent Robert Copeland said in a message to families Friday.
Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesperson Barry Ciccocioppo said the state is distributing doses to counties “based on many factors including current allocations, amount administered, and local infection rates.” But supply is “extremely limited,” he said: 3.5 million Pennsylvanians are currently eligible for the vaccine, and the state has been getting about 140,000 doses a week.
While advocating for educators to have access to the vaccine, Pennsylvania’s largest teachers’ union hasn’t called for the state to bump teachers closer to the front of the line.
“The issue right now is the availability of the vaccine,” said Chris Lilienthal, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, who called vaccinating teachers “critical to being able to reopen schools safely” for in-person instruction.
“We are hopeful that the Biden administration will bring all the resources of the federal government to bear” in getting more vaccines to states, Lilienthal said.
In Philadelphia, Hite on Friday told educators the district would ask the city to hold vaccination clinics in school buildings, though “I do not yet know the exact timing” of when vaccines might be available.
Some teachers in districts that have brought children back to classrooms worry their vaccination isn’t a priority because they are already teaching in person. In those that haven’t reopened buildings — like Philadelphia — teachers expressed fear about returning without a vaccination.
”I don’t know where to go, I don’t know what to do, I have no instruction about how I should get vaccinated,” said Fatim Byrd, who teaches Spanish at Mayfair Elementary.
Mayfair is one of the city’s most crowded schools, with nearly 2,200 children — and bringing back even a small percentage worries Byrd.
”The district is saying that their timetable isn’t based on vaccinations, which is crazy to me,” Byrd said.
Chris Chavarria, a physics and biology teacher at the Charles Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, plans to get the vaccine as soon as possible. He worries there won’t be an adequate supply for both doses needed.
“I would not feel comfortable returning to the classroom until I got the second vaccination,” Chavarria said. “I want to develop an immunity to COVID.”
Emily Simpson, a social studies and English teacher at Philadelphia’s Saul High School, also wants two doses of the vaccine before she sets foot in her classroom, but isn’t sure that’s going to be possible.
”There’s just a lack of information, not only from the district, but from the health department in a really digestible format,” she said. “In a vacuum, people are left to their own devices, and people are just anxious.”
Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this article.