Educators, Wolf at Odds Over Vaccine Rollout

Teachers including Kathy Volin, right, and Dana Cohen, center, conduct their classes online from laptops during freezing temperatures outside the Joseph Greenberg School in Philadelphia, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. A mediator will decide if Philadelphia school teachers must return to their classrooms despite safety concerns as the district plans to resume in-person instruction later this month. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

By Patrick Abdalla

February 12, 2021

They want school employees to get priority in the vaccination process as schools open up.

HARRISBURG — Several educational organizations—groups that aren’t always on the same side—are asking Gov. Tom Wolf to make vaccinating school staff against the coronavirus a priority.

“Unlike 26 other states, Pennsylvania’s vaccination plan does not prioritize school staff members, even though school staff members and students are in a uniquely dangerous position,” the groups said in a letter to the Wolf administration. “For those who are delivering in-person instruction, they are gathered in reasonably large groups every day.”

On Thursday, Wolf essentially told the groups to wait their turn.

Pennsylvania has followed recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and updated the state’s phased vaccination program to move people with underlying conditions, including smokers, ahead of teachers and school employees.

As teachers and other school staff wait to be vaccinated, many government officials and health experts are arguing that schools should fully reopen. 

The education organizations that represent teachers, school board members, administrators and others, urged the Wolf administration to prioritize school personnel.

“Scientists and health experts continue to warn against unnecessary personal interactions and gatherings,” the letter reads. “COVID-19 case counts are more than six times higher than they were on September 10, and the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has been slow at best.” 

The administration’s rollout has been criticized for being ineffective and not delivering on its promises.

As of Thursday night, Pennsylvania had received the fifth most doses of any state. However, it has administered the sixth most doses, and it is 41st among states in percentage of doses administered.

Last week, two teachers union representatives talked to The Keystone during a live discussion on Facebook about the importance of getting teachers vaccinated

“We have been saying all along that education employees, whether they’re teachers, support professionals, if they want to get the vaccine, they should be able to get the vaccine,” said Chris Lilienthal of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents more than 180,000 education professionals. “It’s a really important tool in the toolkit.”

“In my district, we have been fully virtual this year,” said Rosemary Boland, of the Scranton Federation of Teachers, which represents the largest school district in northeastern Pennsylvania. “I thought that was extremely prudent of our school district, our school board, to stay virtual because we are so close to getting a vaccine and getting it into the arms of our people here.”

Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the union went public after its private entreaties to the Wolf administration went nowhere.

“Unfortunately, we got the message from them that they were not going to move on opening up vaccines to teachers,” Askey said Thursday.

Teachers want to be in school, he said, but “they want to make sure that every tool in the toolbox, in what we call the safety toolbox, is being used.”

The groups that signed the letter are the Pennsylvania State Education Association, Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, Pennsylvania Principals Association, Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, Pennsylvania Intermediate Units, Pennsylvania Association of Career and Technical Administrators, AFT Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania School Boards Association. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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