Masking will be mandatory for Philadelphia students for the first 10 days of the upcoming school year that starts on Aug. 29, after which it will be “optional but strongly encouraged” for much of the rest of the school year, district officials announced Friday.
However, masking will also be mandatory for 10 days after extended breaks during the school year.
As part of its COVID protocols for the 2022-23 school year, the district is also requiring all new teachers to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, but is not extending the mask mandate to teachers currently employed.
The district’s chief medical officer, Dr. Kendra McDowell, said the protocols follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meaning the rules could change based on the levels of community transmission.
Right now, that level in Philadelphia is “medium,” she said. If it changes to “high,” masking will be mandatory for students and staff.
Masking will be required for the first 10 days of the school year, from Aug. 29 through Sept. 9, because students are just coming off summer vacation.
“This is an extra precaution for everyone’s health and well being since increased end-of-summer social gatherings may heighten the risk of exposure to Covid-19,” said McDowell, who is a pediatrician and an epidemiologist.
The masking protocols also apply to school buses.
If there are local outbreaks in a school or classroom, universal masking may be imposed, McDowell said. And regardless of the overall transmission level, pre-kindergarten and Head Start students and staff will be required to mask at all times.
Both she and Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. said at a press conference the district is “determined to keep students in school for in person learning” after significant disruptions for the past three school years.
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The district is reducing its quarantine requirement for students and staff who test positive for coronavirus from 10 days to five days, following new guidelines from Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the CDC. Students who have been exposed to COVID but are asymptomatic will not have to quarantine, but rather can “mask to stay” for 10 days.
While vaccination for students and staff is optional but strongly recommended, new teachers are being required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus as a condition of employment under a Board of Education resolution passed last October.
Staff are required to report their vaccination status. If vaccinated employees need to quarantine due to exposure to COVID, they can use paid quarantine leave instead of sick days. Those who are unvaccinated, however, must dip into their sick days.
McDowell said 89% of staff members are vaccinated, but that percentage will increase as new staff come aboard. It is holding a series of vaccine events for students and staff.
“We are working with the (Philadelphia health department) and its immunization program to get that information on how many are fully vaccinated and will have that information shortly,” McDowell said.
Last year, the district required student athletes and those in performing arts activities to be vaccinated, but this year it is dropping that requirement, McDowell said, based on guidance from the city health department.
”Moving in that direction overall comes from our local health authorities and the city as well, and we wanted to make sure we are equitably applying the vaccine mandate across the board,” she said.
“Test to play” in sports and the arts will no longer be required of unvaccinated students. But they will be required to wear their masks during games and performances, according to the district’s guidelines.
In preparation for the opening of school, buildings are being thoroughly cleaned, with no-touch hydration and sanitation stations, as was the case last year. All classrooms will have air purifiers to enhance ventilation, Watlington said, as was the case last year.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, issued a statement generally supporting the district’s guidelines. He emphasized the district’s recognition that “masking requirements need to remain fluid” and its focus on monitoring and improving ventilation.
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Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org.