It took hustle, but Heather Orman-Lubell, medical consultant at the Philadelphia private school Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, was thrilled to secure hundreds of COVID-19 vaccine doses for teachers and staff through a Montgomery County pharmacy.
As recently as Monday morning, Orman-Lubell was looking forward to Friday, when Wellness Pharmacy in Horsham was to inoculate about 250 SCH Academy staff and their eligible family members. Shots also would go to about 100 personnel from Community Partnership School, a private elementary school for low-income children, and that institution’s preschool, she said.
Hours later state health officials shut down the plan, she said, citing rules about vaccine eligibility.
“It’s so hard trying to do something good,” she said, “and being shut down because of red tape.”
The pharmacy was willing to participate, said owner David Sie, but warned that Montgomery County might not authorize doses for teachers by Friday, and any clinic would be contingent on that happening.
Before getting nixed, word of SCH Academy’s plan had trickled out to public school teachers, who questioned how a private school was able to get vaccine doses while they had been told to expect to wait at least a month. Immunization promises a return to normalcy for staff and students. But confusing messages, shifting vaccination priorities, and ambiguity over how schools are supposed to obtain doses are setting off a frantic search for solutions, as well as worries about equitable treatment for all.
“I can’t help but think this is the next great competition of those who have the resources, the haves and have-nots,” said Dan McGarry, the superintendent of the Upper Darby School District. “That’s not really the way the system should work.”
The frustration stems from the ongoing scarcity of vaccine doses. Last week, Philadelphia, which is managing distribution in the city independently from the state, announced it was moving to the next category of vaccine eligibility, 1B, which includes educators. But the dearth of doses means a new hierarchy within that category, city officials said, and teachers are not at the top of the list. The city announced Tuesday it was negotiating a partnership with a local university to inoculate teachers, but it would still be weeks before they would be eligible.
Montgomery County, meanwhile, thought it was close to being finished with category 1A, mainly health-care providers and nursing-home residents, a spokesperson said. But last week, the state Health Department added people with high-risk health conditions and those 65 and older to the 1A category. That means more than 230,000 people remain eligible for vaccines before teachers can get shots.
If Montgomery County can’t get more doses than its current supply of 5,000 a week, it’ll take most of the year before its teachers are eligible.
Some area superintendents have directed parents distressed that they can’t send their children to in-person classes to contact state officials and request doses for teachers.
Fears of inequity
SCH Academy is the largest independent school in the city, with more than 1,000 students from preschool to 12th grade. Annual tuition ranges from about $24,000 for pre-kindergarten to almost $41,500 for high school, and the budget has allowed for pandemic accommodations that public schools can’t match.
Its early childhood center has been open since July, Orman-Lubell said, while the lower school started in person classes in September. Older students are offered a hybrid of in person and virtual learning which allows the school to maintain social distancing restrictions, she said.
“It’s in the best interest of these kids to be in schools with their peers in a safe place,” said Karen Tracy, the school’s communications director. “We went through so much to be prepared for this restart of the school in September.”
Kristin Luebbert, a Philadelphia teacher and member of the Racial Justice Organizing Committee, an activist group that aims to abolish racism in schools and communities, doesn’t fault SCH Academy for attempting to provide the inoculation for its staffers, but said SCH Academy’s initial success in finding doses “highlights all the inequities in our system.”
Luebbert teaches at the U School, where students haven’t attended classes in person since March.
”It’s about systems failing people, and always failing the same people — the poorer people, the Black and brown people, the people who don’t have anything to leverage,” she said.
SCH Academy’s efforts to obtain vaccine started a torrent of rumors, including one in Bucks County that Montgomery County schools were getting doses while its own were not.
“I think it’s a very emotional time,” said Lindsey Dymowski, president of Philadelphia’s Centennial Pharmacy Services who has said no to several schools in the city and neighboring counties trying to line up vaccinations through her business. “We just get emails every day just begging, begging to be put on a list.”
Orman-Lubell agreed it’s troubling that there isn’t a system in place to distribute vaccine equally, and felt health departments should take a more active role in organizing vaccine distribution.
SCH Academy did not pay for vaccine access or seek favors to schedule a clinic, she said.
“My school’s lucky they have a medical director,” said Orman-Lubell, a pediatrician. “I was able to take the time to sit down with a phone book and make lots of phone calls.”
SCH Academy isn’t the only school that has sought out vaccines. The Shipley School, a private school in Bryn Mawr, has “had conversations with an independent pharmacy to provide vaccinations once teachers are eligible,” said spokesperson Susan Manix, though it “has no plans to obtain vaccine or vaccinate teachers before Phase 1B opens.”
In the Lower Merion School District, Superintendent Robert Copeland said during a school board meeting Monday that his administration was “trying to contact pharmacies throughout the state ... so we can bring vaccinations to our staff.” District spokesperson Amy Buckman said Tuesday the district was seeking vaccines for employees “as they qualify under the various phases.”
Chichester School District Superintendent Dan Nerelli said he was “not made aware that schools could secure their own doses.” Superintendents in Delaware County — which has been awaiting more doses to hold vaccination clinics for teachers — haven’t discussed that as a strategy, he said.
A few Pennsylvania school districts have already vaccinated staff through agreements with local pharmacies, including Greater Latrobe in Western Pennsylvania, said Chris Lilienthal, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
In that case, a PSEA representative was neighbors with a local pharmacy owner who was “very focused on helping people in her community,” Lilienthal said. But such arrangements seem “to be the exception rather than the norm,” he said.
Some Pennsylvania school employees have been eligible for vaccines in Phase 1A, including school nurses and certain special-education teachers.
SCH Academy’s vaccination effort died after Wellness Pharmacy received notification from the state that its request for 1,500 doses didn’t align with the state’s distribution priorities, said Barry Ciccocioppo, a state Health Department spokesperson. It instead received just 300 doses.
As Orman-Lubell understands it, the request was denied because the state is still in stage 1A. It also was a concern that a Montgomery County pharmacy would be providing doses to a school in Philadelphia. While Philadelphia last week encouraged teachers who live outside the city to find other vaccine sources, the city on Tuesday said it would handle vaccination of its teachers.
Staff from Wellness Pharmacy did not return a call for comment.
After notifying about 350 people they could be vaccinated Friday, SCH Academy is paring down its list to staff eligible in the 1A category who live in Montgomery County, about 100 people. As of Tuesday, Orman-Lubell was exploring whether they could find other people in the community eligible for vaccination with the doses the pharmacy has.
“I am willing to give shots to anybody who needs it,” she said.
Staff writers Laura McCrystal and Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.