The Philadelphia School District’s 20,000 employees must be vaccinated for COVID-19 by Sept. 30, but they won’t lose their jobs if they opt not to get the shot.
If they choose to not get vaccinated, teachers, administrators, and support staff — as well as contractors — will have to be COVID-19 tested twice a week, and they lose access to a bank of 10 “quarantine leave days” that allow them to be absent from work with pay if they’re sick with the coronavirus or must isolate because of exposure.
All employees, regardless of vaccination status, are already tested weekly.
“The testing provider will return to schools for a second time each week to test partially vaccinated or unvaccinated staff,” Larisa Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer, said in an email to staff. “If these employees do not test two times a week, they will be subject to discipline.”
The district did not give details on what that discipline would look like.
Nearly 6,000 district staff have started or completed entering their vaccination status in the district’s internal tracker, Shambaugh said in the email.
Employees can request religious or medical exemptions that are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, the district has said.
“Being vaccinated is a key factor in mitigating the spread of the virus, and we encourage people who are eligible to get vaccinated,” said Monica Lewis, a district spokesperson. “Ultimately, it’s going to be for the safety and well-being of our students and staff, and their families as well.”
Vaccine mandate terms were worked out with the district’s unions, Lewis said.
Most district unions have endorsed the mandate, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents 13,000 educators, paraprofessionals, and school nurses.
“The health and safety of students and staff is absolutely paramount,” Jerry Jordan, PFT president, said in a statement. “As such, we are supportive of a vaccine mandate, and have discussed and are supportive of the provisions outlined in the district’s recent communication to staff.”
PFT has, in fact, called on the district to require COVID-19 testing for all students. Children are now only tested if they display symptoms during the school day, or if they participate in contact sports or extracurricular activities like band or choir.
But Unite Here Local 634, the union that represents food service workers and some school climate staff, is not pleased by the vaccination mandate, said Nicole Hunt, president.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Hunt said. “For the School District to mandate the vaccine, people will just leave. This is the most vacancies I’ve ever seen.”
On Monday, there were 195 vacancies in her membership ranks, Hunt said. Local 634 has already lost 400 workers — some who had child care issues when schools returned in person last spring, others who had the chance of higher-paid work in this employee market. Worker shortages are common in many positions in the district, including bus drivers and crossing guards.
Food service workers typically earn about $14.50 per hour and work three or four hours a day; Hunt said most of her members take home between $200 and $300 every two weeks. Hunt said many are skeptical of the vaccine or worried about what happens if they have a reaction to the shot — many lack health insurance.
“I don’t think you should have to pick trying to take care of your family or getting the vaccine,” said Hunt. “A lot of people have died from COVID, but it’s people’s choice if they want to get the vaccine.”