The School District of Philadelphia does not have any policy treating vaccinated and unvaccinated children differently. But that doesn’t mean they can’t ultimately be separated.
Fox Chase Elementary Principal Rob Caroselli sent a letter to parents Thursday informing them the school is immediately closed to in-person learning for unvaccinated students.
The letter explained that all unvaccinated students who were in the lunchroom “during the case’s infectious period from 12/13 – 12/15 should quarantine for 10 days from last exposure to the staff member[.] They are released from quarantine 12/26. THIS IS THE ENTIRE SCHOOL!”
According to an online district calendar, schools are open through Dec. 23, but are closed on Christmas Eve.
“Nurse Mackell will be at the front door to see proof of vaccination,” Caroselli’s letter further explained to parents at the Northeast Philadelphia elementary school. “We understand the timing of this notice is not ideal but the safety of our students and staff comes first. Please understand, [Friday] will be tough as we know many children will not have access to their chromebooks. We are in the process of devising a schedule for Chromebook pick up for Monday.”
SDP emphasized that they do not have a district-wide policy that students must be vaccinated in order to attend school, according to district communications officer Christina Clark.
“At Fox Chase School there were multiple days of potential Covid-19 exposure during lunch periods. In response, we were instructed by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health that the entire school will need to quarantine for 10 days,” Clark said.
“Per health official guidance, those who are fully vaccinated are not required to quarantine and can therefore come to school in-person during this time with proof of vaccination,” Clark continued. “Once this quarantine period has ended, all students regardless of vaccination status will be able to attend Fox Chase School in-person.”
Back to School PA, a political action committee launched this year with the specific intentions of driving policies to help keep students in the classroom, is critical of the move.
“The virus will never completely be eradicated; therefore, we cannot close school every time there are confirmed cases,” said Back to School PA’s executive director Beth Ann Rosica. “Our children deserve a world class education, and constant school closures and/or quarantine does not result in high quality instruction. Students in Philadelphia have been disproportionately impacted by closures and [the closures] must be stopped now.”
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health said the decision to keep unvaccinated kids at home after a potential Covid exposure was consistent with CDC guidance.
“This policy was not created recently and has been the policy governing all quarantines recommended at all School District schools and other institutions throughout Philadelphia,” said James Garrow, communications director for the department of public health.
“The recommendation that the Health Department made in this case is not a new normal. In fact, it is the normal course of action in high-risk situations like this,” Garrow said.
“If parents want to ensure that their children can continue in-person learning, they need to make sure that they mitigate the risk of Covid infection as much as possible. This means that they need to ensure that their children are wearing their masks properly and to get them fully vaccinated as soon as possible,” Garrow said. “Unvaccinated children, and staff in schools, and really staff in all businesses, should be quarantining for ten days if they have an exposure to someone who is positive with Covid.”
The Health Department says its commitment is to keeping schools open “safely.” That means that “[if] the risk in a particular setting, classroom, or school is abnormally high, the Health Department may recommend quarantine, as we did in this situation.”
The move by the health department and the school district came just one day before the CDC issued its new “test to stay” policy, which recommends testing for students who have had close contact with a confirmed case.
“In the ‘test to stay’ protocol, there’s increased testing of close contacts after a Covid-19 exposure, and that testing needs to be at least twice in the seven-day period after exposure,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky explained on Friday. “If exposed children meet a certain criteria and continue to test negative, they can stay in school instead of quarantining at home.”
Earlier in the week, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf asked for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for “strike team” assistance in reinforcing hospitals, ambulance services, and nursing homes from the virus.
The increase in Covid-19 cases has also created concerns resulting in other precautions, such as delaying a scheduled Philadelphia Eagles game two days until Tuesday the 21st.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com.