Philadelphia’s educators should get vaccine priority, mayor says

Mayor Jim Kenney standing at a podium.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mayor Jim Kenney said Tuesday he would push to make local educators a priority in getting a vaccine against COVID-19.

“We would like to get schools open and have it done safely,” the mayor said at his regular briefing about the coronavirus pandemic. “[Teachers] are a priority for us, not the same as an ICU nurse, but they do have priority from our perspective,” Kenney said.

School superintendent William Hite also called last week for educators to be among the first workers to get vaccinated. He and other urban school leaders are pushing the issue nationally, he said.

City health commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said he expects Philadelphia will get some vaccines as early as next week from Pfizer and some from Moderna the week after. But he said people should not expect widespread availability until the spring of 2021.

The first priority for the city is to vaccinate frontline medical personnel, which are those who work in hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities, Farley said. After that other “critical workers” would receive the vaccination, but that category of workers has yet to be defined. Farley said it’s “too early to say” whether teachers would fall into that category. He suggested that “critical workers” would be those who have “lots of contact with other people.”

“If we have teachers who are actively teaching, that makes sense,” he said. At the same time, Farley said, “It’s always been our [the city] position that schools can open if they follow safety precautions.” 

The Philadelphia school district had planned to open schools in September using a “hybrid” model for pre-kindergarten through second graders and some students with special needs. But those plans were scuttled after public outcry that it was unsafe. Opponents cited poor ventilation in many of the district’s aging buildings, among other concerns. 

The district did work on the buildings and purchased millions in personal protective equipment, or PPE, and cameras to allow teachers to teach both in person and online, with the hope of starting hybrid learning in November. It also signed a detailed agreement with the teachers union outlining mandatory safety measures. But the plans were derailed again when the virus surged in the city.

The district made that decision on its own and not because the city health authorities ordered it. Farley noted about 100 private and parochial schools in the city have been conducting some in-person classes since September.

He said the health department “was working with every school we’re aware of where cases were reported” and there was evidence that the spread occurred in the school. He said that has happened at about 16 schools, and a few had to close as a result. 

Last month, as part of a tighter crackdown due to an alarming rise in city COVID-19 cases, the city ordered high schools to go all-virtual, but allowed elementary schools to continue in-person teaching.

Since September, the city has opened up 77 access centers for students in kindergarten through sixth grade who needed a place to be during the day to do their remote learning. City officials said Tuesday that since September, there have been 30 positive cases involving either staff, students or parents across the 77 centers, resulting in 27 instances of temporary closure. (Some centers closed more than once.)

Deana Gamble, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said there have “not been cases of spread at access centers.” Those that closed “have done so because someone was exposed to COVID-19 elsewhere and out of an abundance of caution, the entire cohort was placed under quarantine.” Each access center has one cohort of 25 people or two that are kept isolated from each other.

Farley said doses of the vaccine will go directly to the states, but that some cities, including Philadelphia, will get additional supplies. Between the health department and hospitals, he said, the city has ample deep-freeze storage capability required by some of the vaccines. 

He blamed the latest surge in the city on Thanksgiving gatherings. There were 1,408 new cases reported on Tuesday, and the test positivity rate has increased over the past week compared to the week before. 

Kenney, who announced that he is in quarantine due to exposure to someone who tested positive, said it is important to him that schools open as soon as possible. But, he added, “all decisions will be based on science and medicine.” 

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