Some Philadelphia teachers may get vaccine before return to buildings Monday, health commissioner says

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said it is possible some teachers may get the vaccine before they return to their buildings Monday. (Emma Lee / WHYY)

Some prekindergarten to second grade teachers may be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine before they return to their schools next week, Philadelphia’s health commissioner said Tuesday. 

“We will certainly not have all of those teachers vaccinated by then, but I don’t think reopening the schools should depend on that,” the commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, said. “We are going to see how soon we can get teachers started. So it’s quite possible we could have some to start by then.”

The school district confirmed to Chalkbeat that it would advocate for early-grade teachers to get vaccine priority. Prekindergarten to second grade teachers are slated to return to school buildings on Monday. Students in those grades whose families opted for in-person learning are slated to return to school buildings as of Feb. 22.

City officials said last month they anticipated teachers would get access to the vaccine beginning on Jan. 25. But Farley cautioned that the city has a limited number of doses and a large number of people who qualify for vaccination during Phase 1B of the city’s plan. Teachers are considered frontline workers, but currently must wait until others in the 1B group, such as first responders, corrections employees, transit workers, and those working with vulnerable populations, receive vaccines.

“When schools follow guidelines, the risk of spread will be low,” Farley said. “So yes, I’m confident we can do this safely and I think it’s very important for the teachers to come back even if they don’t have a vaccine by the time they are to come back.”

Since Tuesday, there have been 382 additional confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city, bringing the number of confirmed cases to 106,976 since the start of the pandemic. There have also been 12 confirmed deaths since Tuesday, bringing the total number of Philadelphia residents who have died to 2,886.

“Everyone needs to keep up their masks and distancing for now,” Farley said. “No indoor gatherings, no parties, no inviting anyone over to your place. If you do get together, meet outside with masks.”

While teachers and school leaders are not yet eligible for the vaccine, school nurses, like other health care workers, have been able to sign up for weeks. The district and the city’s health department held a vaccine clinic for school nurses two weeks ago. 

“We are working on a couple of opportunities” to get teachers vaccinated, said Mayor Jim Kenney. “We know how important it is to get schools open. We know how important it is to get kids out of the house and parents back to work. We are working diligently to establish a process to do that.”

To improve air circulation and prevent virus spread in classrooms before campuses reopen, the district has been installing temporary window fans, which Farley said was a good idea. 

“I was surprised to learn that once I got into this, but window fans can really make a big difference in the amount of ventilation that takes place,” Farley said. 

Even with precautions in place, Mayor Kenny said he understands why city residents are on edge. “A lot of the stress has to do with the fact that we have very little vaccine, so I understand people’s consternation,” he said. “We are trying to get as much vaccines as we can.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of student leaders discussed the district’s reopening plans with Chalkbeat and advised the district to “slow down” the process and involve more students in the planning.

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