As the Philadelphia School District prepares to welcome students back in person — many for the first time in 18 months — officials are pressing families to ensure their children are up to date on required immunizations so they aren’t excluded from school.
More than 19,000 students are behind on regular vaccinations and at risk of not being allowed to attend when the school year begins Aug. 31, said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. The district enrolls about 125,000 students.
“We want all of our students back in school safely in person five days a week, and that means getting caught up on their immunizations,” Hite said at a news conference Wednesday at the Maria de los Santos Health Center in Fairhill, where the district announced a partnership with Delaware Valley Community Health to provide required immunizations — like measles, mumps, and rubella, among others — to students this month.
District officials said the number of students lacking state-required vaccinations is on par with prior years. Still, they voiced concern that families had fallen behind on routine medical care during the pandemic — a worry that emerged last year among pediatricians nationally.
“We don’t want a pandemic of MMR or varicella,” said Julia DeJoseph, a family physician and chief medical officer at Delaware Valley Community Health.
In July 2020, routine vaccination rates in Philadelphia fell by almost 60% compared with the year prior, said Jim Garrow, spokesperson for the Philadelphia health department.
As of June, however, rates have returned “to almost pre-pandemic levels,” Garrow said Wednesday. He said the health department would be releasing a report with more information.
For many families, “it has been a challenging time in the pandemic to know what to do. … A lot of people have felt like, ‘I’m just going to stay home and kind of hide,’” DeJoseph said. Her group’s health centers in Fairhill and Spring Garden actually saw increased vaccination rates, “but we know that a lot of people just didn’t know what to do or where to go.” And some lost their jobs and health insurance and may have worried about cost, she said.
The community health group’s partnership with the School District “can hopefully reduce that barrier,” she said.
Families can register for immunization appointments at the Maria de los Santos Health Center and the Fairmount Primary Care Center through philasd.org/vax. The centers will serve families that are undocumented and uninsured.
Among those vaccinated at the Fairhill center Wednesday was Matthew Motley, 16, an incoming Carver Engineering and Science senior who received meningitis and HPV shots. His mother, Andrea Bartha, said her son’s pediatrician had retired during the pandemic, and they didn’t see another doctor for routine immunizations. (Matthew did receive a COVID-19 vaccine in May.)
“It was very easy to lose track,” said Bartha, who lives in Nicetown.
Matthew, who attended school virtually last year, said he had been concerned about exposure to COVID-19 but feels more prepared to attend in person this fall.
“I think it’s a little safer now to go back,” he said.