The Philadelphia school board will vote next week on a mandate requiring that all staff members be vaccinated against COVID-19 before the school year begins in the fall.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said a vaccine resolution would probably be made public on Friday and the meeting held Tuesday.
It would be a big step for the 120,000-student district, which is set to bring back students for full-time, in-person learning Aug. 31. Hite said there would likely be some exemptions, and consequences for those who do not comply.
Though a decision had not been finalized on vaccination by Thursday night, “I am a strong proponent of them for all staff,” Hite said during Thursday’s school board meeting — which was held in-person at district headquarters on Broad Street rather than remotely for the first time in months.
Hite signaled the school system had buy-in from unions on the broad concepts of a plan that would require vaccinations for all 20,000-plus employees.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents about 13,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, secretaries, and other school employees, said it had not been informed of an impending meeting, but union chief Jerry Jordan has said he supports a mandate.
Other details of Philadelphia’s back-to-school plan emerged, including how schools will manage students eating breakfast and lunch and what will happen to close contacts of those who test positive for the virus.
Many schools will be unable to maintain 3 feet of social distancing during learning time because of class sizes, but the district will try to keep children at least 3 feet apart during mealtimes, Hite said. To do so, children will eat in classrooms and cafeterias, and even outside in some cases.
All district staff and students will be required to wear masks when not eating. Responding to a board question about consequences for those staff who refuse to mask or mask properly, Hite said the district would employ a “progressive discipline situation.”
School staff will be required to have weekly COVID-19 testing, but in a shift, students will not have asymptomatic testing. Instead, only those children who develop COVID-19-like symptoms during the day must be tested. Student athletes in high-risk sports and young people who participate in some performing arts activities will also have asymptomatic testing.
Initially, the school system said close contacts of people with COVID-19 could remain in school if they remained asymptomatic, and would have multiple tests on nonconsecutive days. At the behest of the city’s health department, that’s now shifted to a mandatory quarantine for close contacts — a move that alarmed district parent Priscilla Lo, who suggested such quarantines would disrupt learning unnecessarily.
Hite said quarantining students would not be able to stream into their classes — he had previously ruled out the kind of hybrid instruction district teachers managed last school year, with some students in the classroom and others learning virtually — but would have access to assignments and teacher support in the 10 days they will have to sit out of classes.
Some board members pushed back, asking why asymptomatic, quarantining students could not stream into classes without requiring additional teacher work.
“All you have to do is flip a switch and the child can watch, not engage, but just watch,” board president Joyce Wilkerson said.
Malika Savoy-Brooks, the district’s chief of academic supports, said the district instead had set up protocols where additional qualified teachers would work with quarantining students. Altogether, 22 teachers will provide individual and small group instruction for those children.
Several parents told the board the district’s virtual academy, the option open to those not comfortable with sending their children into classrooms, was inadequate. The Philadelphia Virtual Academy provides only asynchronous instruction.
Mandy Lin, speaking on behalf of a number of parents whose students have disabilities, said those families are concerned with classrooms safety during COVID-19, but said the virtual school “is not an appropriate place for our families.”
Other parents said they were uncomfortable with sending their children to school with rising COVID-19 cases, but loath to give up seats in special admissions schools.