The Philadelphia School Board has voted unanimously to require COVID-19 vaccinations for 20,000 employees of the public school district, which is set to fully reopen for the first time since March 2020.
The decision, which came during a special session on Aug. 24, won’t go into effect immediately. Philadelphia school officials will meet with the district’s five labor unions to determine deadlines, detailed terms, and potential penalties for non-compliance with the mandate.
The mandate is expected to apply to all teachers, staff members, contracted personnel, and service providers in the district. The Aug. 24 resolution also makes clear that there will be an option for exemptions for “certain documented medical circumstances” or “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The resolution received a mixed response during the public comment portion of the special session, with some speakers speaking against the policy and others in favor of it.
“COVID is temporary, civil rights are not,” said Christine Heying, who teaches at Philadelphia High School for Girls.
Heying said her health condition prevents her from getting vaccinated, and she was afraid of being bullied by those who have “growing resentment toward the unvaccinated.”
Nicole Hunt, president of a 2,200-member union of school cafeteria workers and noon-time aides, also spoke against the vaccine mandate. She said many of the union’s members are low-income, part-time workers, and that the mandate might cause them to quit their jobs.
“We should not be telling people what to do with their bodies. If they decide not to get the vaccine, that is their choice,” Hunt said.
Before the vote, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) issued a statement reiterating its support for the mandate.
“This union has been very clear from the start—we support vaccines, and we have been urging every member to get vaccinated,” PFT President Jerry Jordan said in the statement, citing an estimation by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) that 90 percent of the nation’s educators have been vaccinated.
The teachers’ union also urged the district to test all students regularly for COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they’re showing symptoms. The district currently plans to only test symptomatic students.
“It is imperative to note that our students in PreK–7 are not yet even eligible for the vaccine. As such, each day, tens of thousands of unvaccinated individuals will be entering our buildings,” Jordan said. “A multilayered mitigation strategy is absolutely key—vaccines, universal masking, and universal testing.
“Regular COVID tests for students is one of the key ways that we can not only open schools but keep them open. Testing must include asymptomatic students.”