HARRISBURG - An unusual coalition of education groups — from superintendents and school boards to teachers unions — asked Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday to prioritize school staff for the COVID-19 vaccine, calling it an "absolutely essential" step toward reopening schools and keeping them open.
Teachers and other school staff had been higher up on the vaccine priority list until the Wolf administration, following guidance from the federal government, made people age 65 and older and younger people with serious medical conditions newly eligible for the vaccine.
That Jan. 19 decision set off a desperate competition for scarce COVID-19 shots — and placed teachers and other front-line essential workers, including first responders, prison guards and grocery store workers, further back in line. More than 4 million people in Pennsylvania are currently eligible for the vaccine, with teachers in the next priority group.
The education groups called on Wolf to reverse course, contending that "school staff members and students are in a uniquely dangerous position."
The letter was signed by the leaders of two statewide teachers unions, the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and several other groups.
The Wolf administration replied Thursday that it will not accelerate vaccinations for school staff.
Pennsylvania is adhering to federal guidelines meant to "get vaccine out as efficiently as possible in a way to prioritize health care workers and the most vulnerable to serious illness," said Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s spokesperson.
The Wolf administration brushed off a similar request from Pittsburgh’s mayor earlier in the week.
Schools are under pressure to get students back in brick-and-mortar classrooms, and more are doing so. More than 1.3 million students — about 75% of enrolled students — are receiving in-person instruction at least part of the time, up from nearly 1.1 million two months ago, according to state Education Department data supplied to The Associated Press.
About 450 of the state’s 500 schools districts are now offering at least some brick-and-mortar instruction — up by 100 in just two months.
"A growing number of Pennsylvania school entities are planning to increase the number of students who attend school in person," the education groups’ letter said. "We know that teaching students in person is by far the best way to provide the highest quality education. However, we also know that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over."
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."
Askey said many of his members were frustrated that the Wolf administration urged schools to return elementary students to the classroom and then announced that teachers had to wait longer for the vaccine.
Nationwide, schools have not been seen as significant vectors of the coronavirus. The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, recently said that teachers do not need to be vaccinated in order for schools to reopen safely, saying data shows that social distancing and wearing a mask limit spread within schools.
But those health and safety guidelines — especially the recommendation that people keep 6 feet (2 meters) apart — can be extremely difficult to implement in a school setting, the educators’ letter said, especially with schools increasing the number of students they allow in class.
"Across Pennsylvania, we know school staff members are anxious about being in close contact with others for 7 hours a day. We also know that many parents want to get their children back into school so that they don’t miss the in-person instruction that every student deserves," the letter said. "The best way to reduce health risks in schools and reduce reliance on social distancing guidelines is to vaccinate school staff members as soon as possible."
Philadelphia, which receives its vaccine allotment directly from the federal government and runs its own vaccination program, this week announced a joint effort with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to start vaccinating teachers and other school staff in late February.
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