An abrupt Philadelphia School District policy shift this week requiring student athletes to be fully vaccinated could effectively bench hundreds of students who had previously been told they could opt out of a COVID-19 vaccination for religious or medical reasons and still play sports.

The School District announced in October it would require vaccinations for all athletes beginning with the winter season but said it would allow for players who sought an approved exemption to opt out and be tested twice weekly, as all athletes were in the fall.

The policy shift will “decimate teams, and some teams won’t have enough players to field a team,” said one athletic director, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal. The athletic director said half their team would be excluded under the change. “It just seems like our students always get the shaft, with poor facilities, and now some of them can’t play.”

Schools’ athletic departments received written notice of the policy change Wednesday.

Citing state code, the letter from Student Health Services said that “if an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease occurs for which a student is exempted from receiving the vaccine, a student may be excluded from certain activities for the duration of the outbreak. The COVID-19 pandemic is considered a disease outbreak. Any student with either exemption on file will be excluded from participation in interscholastic sports for the duration of the outbreak or for the sports season, whichever is shorter.”

Barbara Klock, the district’s chief medical officer, said the update was made after officials considered the rise in virus transmission rates and the new omicron variant. “We thought a little harder about how important it is to keep everyone safe,” she said.

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(Hours after The Inquirer first asked about the policy, the School District on Thursday afternoon said athletes who had submitted their exemption requests by Nov. 12 would be granted a grace period and get until Jan. 21 to be fully vaccinated.)

But backlash against the policy was swift and passionate. Mylan Marable, a senior basketball player at the Academy at Palumbo, said she was crushed at the news, especially after COVID-19 scrapped last season.

“Honestly, it felt like I lost everything. My motivation for school is basketball,” said Marable.

Marable was getting her first vaccine shot Thursday but won’t be fully vaccinated until mid-January. She doesn’t love the idea of the vaccine — “there’s a history of mistreatment of African American people by the government,” she said — but is desperate to play, and was elated at news Thursday afternoon that her season was not over.

Christine Donnelly, Marable’s coach and a Palumbo counselor, said she would have lost three girls basketball players to the policy change; it’s not clear whether all her students are comfortable getting vaccines to salvage their seasons.

She’s pro-vaccine and both she and the school nurse encouraged athletes to get vaccinated. But Donnelly is aghast at the proposed rule change when it’s too late for athletes like Marable to salvage most of their season.

“It’s like if a player took a shot and in the middle of the shot, while the ball’s in the air, someone moved the basket two feet to the left,” said Donnelly. “These kids and their families didn’t get to make an informed decision.”

Donnelly said she was frustrated by “a lack of consistency,” she said. Many charter schools — who play in the Philadelphia Public League against district teams — don’t require vaccines, and neither do suburban schools. Philadelphia students eat unmasked, without social distancing, in cafeterias. Students play in bands and sing in choir without vaccine mandates.

The news sent Carolyn Garcia and her daughter Alysha Hayes, a senior basketball player at Edison High, into a tailspin.

“Going back and forth on something that concerns my daughter’s future and the health of our family has been a stressful and trying process to keep up with,” said Garcia.

The people requiring students to be vaccinated don’t have to be vaccinated themselves, Garcia points out — the district asks employees to be vaccinated, but allows them to remain employed as long as they submit to twice-weekly testing — but the same officials are now “taking away one of our students’ only safe havens and outlets.”

The Edison boys’ basketball team will lose five students to the change, and the girls’ basketball team will lose two players, school staff said. At least seven of the wrestling team’s 20 athletes will be excluded, said Dominic Castelli, the coach.

In a letter to wrestling families, Castelli said the policy reversal was “inequitable and detrimental to the safety and well-being of any student athlete that is being forced to quit a sport they enjoy or go against a young person’s moral or religious beliefs.”

Castelli, in an interview, said he found the change dangerous in a city under siege from gun violence.

“Some kid that’s supposed to be in a gym is going to end up on the wrong end of a gun because he had nowhere to go from 3 to 6 p.m.,” Castelli said.

The athletic director said the district’s sports community is up in arms about the changes.

“We know the vaccine is good for kids, but is taking away opportunities away from kids better for them? I just don’t think so,” the athletic director said. “They didn’t even get to go to school last year, and now we’re taking this away from them?”