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School vaccine mandates are key as Philly families prepare for in-person classes | Editorial

With less than two weeks to go until Philadelphia School District students return to five-day-a-week instruction for the first time in 17 months, the key to a successful start is going to be trust.

Families wait in line to collect school supplies being given out at the Jardel Recreation Center earlier this month.
Families wait in line to collect school supplies being given out at the Jardel Recreation Center earlier this month.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

With less than two weeks to go until the Philadelphia School District’s roughly 125,000 students return to five-day-a-week instruction for the first time in 17 months, the key to a successful start to the academic year is going to be trust in district leadership.

That may prove to be a tough pill for many parents and teachers to swallow. Even before the pandemic, trust was a major challenge. In fall 2019 and winter 2020, the district was forced to temporarily close one school after the other because of toxic asbestos conditions. The closures reopened old wounds around class, race, and privilege, with students and parents questioning the decision-making by school officials.

It is against this backdrop that the coronavirus led to an unprecedented transition to remote learning.

In response to district policies throughout the pandemic, in September the union for school administrators made the unprecedented declaration that they had lost faith in district leadership. The lack of trust that many parents have in the district is underscored by a lawsuit two community groups filed over the Board of Education’s new policy for public comments at meetings. The suit alleged that the board’s limits on speakers violated the state Sunshine Act.

» READ MORE: A vaccine mandate for Philly schoolteachers won’t be in place when classes start

In a meeting with The Inquirer Editorial Board on Tuesday, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and school board president Joyce Wilkerson talked about the steps they’ve taken to prepare for this school year and to build back trust with parents and teachers, which Wilkerson called “a work in progress.”

The coronavirus has pushed school districts all over the country into an impossible situation. There are a lot of things that the district got right: It managed to distribute 81,000 laptops to students, ensured students got breakfast and lunch, and made vaccines for students more available.

But there is still more work to be done.

While the School District has not yet required vaccines for all employees — a measure supported by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the district’s largest union — the Board of Education is expected to vote on a mandate proposal as early as Tuesday. We hope the Board of Education approves the vaccine mandate as soon as possible. And while any mandate will require a period of time for vaccine stragglers to get the shot, the district should encourage as many employees as possible to get their vaccinations before the first day of school.

» READ MORE: Philly schools will be open 5 days a week come fall — with masks for all and COVID-19 testing

The sooner vaccine stragglers can get shots, the safer all students, teachers, and their families will be, especially as delta variant cases continue to increase in the city.

Beyond COVID-19, the district is also grappling with a change to school start times, which has rankled many parents who face child-care issues because of the swap. While the district is making admirable strides in systematizing bell schedules across the city — an effort to minimize the time students spend in school and to respond to a bus driver shortage — it’s understandable that parents feel caught off guard by the change.

The district deserves credit for aiding some families with free on-site child care at K-8 schools where the start time has moved earlier. However, there should also be a commitment to reevaluate start times after a period of time, with transparency about any decisions.

Meanwhile, in the background of this extraordinary return-to-school situation, the district is also in the midst of negotiations on teachers’ contracts, which are set to expire at the end of the month. After 17 months of the Herculean challenges of teaching virtually, then teaching simultaneously in person and virtually, all while juggling the demands of COVID-19, Hite and Wilkerson acknowledge that most teachers are exhausted before this school year even begins. It’s hard not to wonder what lengthy and contentious contract negotiations would do to an already weak morale. The district owes teachers a fair contract, resolved quickly.

The district is asking parents to trust them with the safety of their children. The district is also asking teachers to trust them to keep them safe, and to treat them with respect after months of unimaginable challenges. They’ve taken some laudable steps toward rebuilding this broken relationship, but for the 2021-22 school year to be a success, more can be done. A vaccine mandate and a clear process for evaluating the new school start times are first steps.