Philadelphia schools to test only symptomatic students, but teachers union opposes change

Board of Education to hold a special meeting Aug. 24 to consider a vaccine mandate for staff members

Board of Education meeting inside the meeting hall of the School District of Philadelphia’s headquarters. Participants are socially distanced and the foreground shows a lot of empty carpeted area.
A socially distanced setting at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting inside the cavernous headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia off North Broad. (Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat)

After randomly testing students for COVID last year, the Philadelphia school district plans to focus only on symptomatic students when school starts in less than two weeks — a change the teachers union opposes.

Union President Jerry Jordan said that testing “must include asymptomatic students,” or those who are infected but don’t show any signs of the disease.

But Superintendent William Hite said at Thursday’s board meeting that “it is more valuable for students to be in classrooms receiving instruction than to be removed for testing.” He said that the district wide student positivity rate was less than 1% during last year’s hybrid learning, when 27% of enrolled students returned to buildings in the spring.

The board also plans to hold a special meeting on Aug. 24 “to consider a resolution to mandate COVID-19 vaccination for employees and all contractors” who work in district facilities. Earlier this week, Hite said that he didn’t think the logistics of such a mandate could be worked out before the opening of school. 

District officials expect most of the district’s 120,000 students to return for in-person learning when schools open on Aug. 31. To prevent the spread of COVID, the district plans to rely on “multiple layers of safety,” including universal masking, weekly testing of all staff members, on-site testing of symptomatic students, air purifiers in classrooms and other spaces, and regular deep cleaning. The testing program will cost about $36 million.

Hite said the testing policy is subject to change depending on circumstances and the recommendations of health authorities. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “screening testing” as a virus mitigation strategy in K-12 schools, especially when it will be difficult to maintain at least three feet of distance, as will be the case in many Philadelphia schools at full in-person enrollment. Screening, or regularly testing all or a sample of the student body, is meant to find asymptomatic cases or to catch COVID before people show symptoms. 

But, in schools without routine screening, the CDC does say rapid testing of symptomatic students can help schools figure out who is sick and who was exposed.

In a statement to Chalkbeat, Jordan said he favors universal testing, universal masking, and vaccination. He said he plans to continue discussing the issue with the district. He noted that only students ages 12 and up are eligible for vaccination right now, meaning that each day “tens of thousands of unvaccinated individuals will be entering our buildings.”

At their first in-person meeting in more than a year, board members seemed satisfied with the new testing policy, but asked detailed questions about what will trigger a quarantine at a school. Hite said positive cases will be reported to the state Department of Health, which will make those decisions.

Some students participating in extracurricular activities, including athletes and band and choir members, also will be tested once or twice a week, although they can opt out if they provide proof of vaccination, Hite said. 

The board approved two resolutions, one for $6 million and another for $30 million, with Dentrust P.C. and other vendors for COVID testing of staff on site, mobile sites for students and staff who are symptomatic, as well as providing other support.  

It also approved its Health and Safety Plan required under the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, legislation, but only after an extensive discussion of what will happen if students must be quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19. 

Among other provisions, there is a plan for 22 “quarantine teachers” to support regular teachers, said Chief of Academic Support Malika Savoy-Brooks.

Brooks said they are still hiring such teachers. 

Board members were skeptical this plan would be adequate. “I don’t know why you just don’t turn on the cameras in the classrooms,” said board member Lisa Salley. “It sounds like a logistical nightmare.”

Hite said that all quarantined students would also have access to their regular teachers.

In a surprise, after lowering expectations on whether a vaccine mandate for staff could be reached before students return to school, the district announced late Thursday that the board would proceed with a vote Aug. 24, although Hite said there are still outstanding issues. 

“We’ve been in conversation with all our union partners, and to a person all are in support of a vaccine mandate,” he told the board. “The thing we’re trying to resolve, all the information individuals need to get the vaccine and the consequences if in fact they choose not to.”

Jordan has said publicly he supports a negotiated vaccine agreement for his members. In interviews with Chalkbeat, so did Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, which represents principals, and Royce Merriweather, head of the Philadelphia union of school safety officers. The heads of two other unions representing custodians, food service workers and other school employees could not be reached. 

Earlier in the week, Jordan criticized Hite’s administration for not opening talks about what a teacher vaccine mandate might look like, calling the lack of any serious discussion “absurd.” On Wednesday, he issued a statement taking a softer line, saying he and Hite had had an additional conversation. But Thursday afternoon a union spokesperson said they were unaware of the board’s plan to meet Aug. 24 on the subject of a mandate. 

As part of its plan, the district has also installed air purifiers in all classrooms, gyms, auditoriums and other public areas, and is cleaning and sanitizing “walls, floor, furniture, doors, windows, bathrooms, fixtures and dispensers, railings, light switches and more” in every school, according to a district statement.

More than 1,000 touchless hydration stations are located in schools, and these are being tested for lead. Each school will also have touchless hand sanitizer stations and supplies “to support frequent handwashing, according to the district.” 

Another point of concern is whether schools can maintain a social distance of three feet in classrooms, cafeterias and other spaces.

“While three-feet distancing is recommended and will be encouraged where possible, the priority from both the CDC and PDPH is the full return of students to in-person learning with multiple layers of safety in place,” the district’s statement said. 

Some educators are nervous about the ability to distance when schools are at or near capacity. 

Jeannine Payne, principal of the 350-student Richard R. Wright Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion, said social distancing — even at six feet — was not a problem last spring, when only 50 or so students regularly attended in person. 

With K-5 students, nearly all Wright’s students are ineligible for vaccination.

”The district says because we are under a mask mandate, we can go under three feet. But they didn’t give us a number for how much. It’s been made very clear that the priority is bringing back the students and 100% in-person programming,” she said.

In reiterating the union’s openness to a vaccine mandate for its members, Jordan noted that “nearly 90% of educators nationwide have been vaccinated,” although no figures are available for those in Philadelphia. He said in a prior statement that the union “had no reason to believe” the figure in Philadelphia is any lower.

Both the principals and teachers unions are deep in talks about new contracts with the district as their current pacts expire at the end of this month. A teachers union spokesperson said that COVID precautions are not part of the contract talks, but still must be worked out in detail. 

Cooper, the principals union president, agrees. “We think to the degree possible, folks should be vaccinated,” she said “We would also like to negotiate an agreement around vaccinations. We think it’s in the best healthy interest of everyone.” 

She said the ideal would be to have an agreement in place before school opens, and said she has had just one exploratory conversation with Hite about a possible mandate. 

It is not an easy ask, she said. 

“To give [others] that kind of freedom over [a person’s] body is serious business,” she said. “While we recognize that vaccines are extremely important, we feel like there should be meaningful dialogue around it.”

Merriweather, president of the union that represents school safety officers, said he was “personally open” to a vaccine mandate, but has not been involved in active discussions. 

“With everything that’s been happening, it’s a small thing to ask for someone to get a shot to protect themselves, their loved ones, and also the kids. I have two grandchildren that have gotten shot, two younger ones that aren’t able because of their age. It is a concern,” he said.  

In a statement, the district called a vaccine mandate for employees “an additional layer of safety in our schools and offices,” while calling it “a complex matter that the district and school board are actively considering” in talks with “all of our labor union partners ... we will continue to have ongoing conversations with all appropriate parties to inform a final decision soon.” 

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