Advocacy groups pressure Wolf to get teachers vaccinated

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
FILE - In this Dec. 29, 2020, file photo, Penny Cracas, with the Chester County, Pa., Health Department, fills a syringe with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine before administering it to emergency medical workers and healthcare personnel at the Chester County Government Services Center in West Chester, Pa. About 1 in 3 Americans say they definitely or probably won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Pro-teacher advocacy groups pushed Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday to prioritize getting the COVID-19 vaccine into teachers' arms amid growing pressure to get students back into classrooms. 

Getting the vaccine to teachers is "absolutely essential" to reopen schools and return to normal instruction for the 2021-2022 school year, argues the statement signed by leaders from nine advocacy organizations and unions and delivered Thursday to Wolf. 

“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," the statement read.

The state's existing vaccine plan prioritizes access for the elderly, health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

But Wolf does not plan to change the vaccine distribution plan, an administration official said Friday.

Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf's spokesperson, said in an email that the administration is sticking to its schedule and is working to prioritize health care workers and individuals vulnerable to serious illness, in line with recommendations from the CDC.

Pennsylvania is currently in phase 1A of the plan, which allows people 65 and older, health care personnel, long-term care facility residents and people with high-risk medical conditions to get vaccinated.

Educators can access the vaccine in phase 1B. The timing for phase 1B has been determined, Kensinger said, but hasn't been made public. 

Kensinger said some school staff, including school nurses and staff over 65, can access the vaccine now. 

Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesperson Chris Lilienthal said 26 states outside Pennsylvania have plans in place that make the vaccine available to some or all educators. 

"We really feel like it can be done," he said. 

Lilienthal argued that getting the vaccine to educators would have a wider impact on Pennsylvania residents, and said state officials could continue distributing the vaccine to vulnerable populations while sending it to schools as well. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidance Friday for reopening schools. In it, officials noted that in-person instruction can resume safely with masks, social distancing and other precautions. Vaccinations were not noted as a prerequisite for reopening, according to The Associated Press. 

Most school districts in York County have implemented either hybrid or fully in-person learning models, while several other districts are expanding their reopening plans.

The York City School District just transitioned all of its schools from fully remote to a hybrid model. York Suburban School District is reopening its elementary schools to classes four days a week in March, while its current model brings students to the classroom two days a week. 

More:York City School District to begin reopening buildings

More:York Suburban elementary schools to move to four days of in-person learning

Lilienthal said most teachers want to return to teaching their students in person, but the COVID-19 pandemic is still cause for concern. He said schools considering reopening or expanding their hybrid programs should prioritize getting the vaccine to staff. 

Several school districts have reported that they have received no communication so far about when the COVID-19 vaccine might be available to staff. York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams said during a board meeting this week that he is working with a local pharmacy company to get the vaccine distributed to staff. 

Williams said he would not mention the name of the company at the meeting, and he did not know when the district would receive the vaccine. York Suburban's middle school and high school will remain in the current hybrid schedule, and Williams said he is hesitant to reopen those schools further without administering the vaccine to staff. 

"In that kind of confined space, I'm not comfortable," Williams said at the meeting.