Philadelphia School District still requires some students to be vaccinated
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Philadelphia School District still requires some students to be vaccinated

The Philadelphia School District has changed its mandatory vaccine policy for some — not all — student athletes.

The shifts come as the spring sports season begins and the School District lifts its mask mandate. And it comes after some athletes, parents, and coaches asked Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to relax a policy that said unvaccinated students could not play, no exceptions.

Now, students who play outdoor sports with low- or intermediate-COVID-19 risk, including baseball, softball, lacrosse, track and field, and tennis, can apply for medical or religious exemptions, according to an email sent this week and obtained by The Inquirer. But those who play indoor sports, including badminton and volleyball, still have no workarounds and must get the vaccination or sit out the season.

The changes came “in light of the reduction in COVID cases in schools since the peak of the Omicron surge,” according to a communication sent to coaches by the district’s executive director of athletics Monday. A district spokesperson said the city health department recommended loosening requirements only for outdoor sports that posed a low COVID risk.

During the fall season, unvaccinated student athletes were required to submit to regular COVID testing. The district passed a vaccine mandate beginning with winter-sports athletes and at first said it would permit exemptions, then changed its policy, effectively benching some athletes.

Many in the district’s athletic community have expressed frustration that kids who play sports are being singled out while the rest of the district loosens pandemic protocols. Mary Creighton, Saul High School’s athletic director, told the school board in February that she thought the mandate was unfair.

“Our students at Saul sit in classes for 90 minutes a day in very close quarters and it doesn’t matter if they’re vaccinated or not,” said Creighton, who is vaccinated. “In a double block, they’re together for three hours. This is less time than they would spend at practice, many of which are outside, where they can spread out. They eat lunch together unmasked. Until this vaccine is mandated for everyone, it should not be exclusive to athletes.”

Sean Ryan, badminton coach at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts, said the mandate means he may not be able to field a team. The Kensington badminton program was already hobbled by COVID-19; students don’t come into high school knowing the sport, and Ryan relies on word of mouth for player development. But the pandemic has already wiped out two seasons.

Ryan held “open gym” for kids to try badminton this week. The kids who showed up loved the sport and the idea of having something fun to do after school, with a team to belong to, but two were unvaccinated and can’t join the program.

“Why are we preventing them from playing?” said Ryan. “There’s a gun epidemic, we’re in Kensington, and this is just something else we’re taking away from kids.”

COVID altered Zae’Onah Howell’s sophomore and junior years at Saul. She had hoped to have a strong senior year, in part through sports — volleyball, bowling, softball.

“I gain self-esteem from participating in sports — it gives me the feeling of belonging,” Howell told the school board. Howell was able to play volleyball in the fall, but her winter season was scuttled after the vaccine mandate caused her team to forfeit its season. She can now play softball because of the change that allows players to claim religious or medical exemptions, but asked the board to change the district’s policy for all athletes.

“Making us get vaccinated just to play sports is cruel and wrong,” said Howell, who said neither she nor her family is comfortable with her getting the vaccine. “It just makes me upset — it doesn’t matter if you wear a mask in class, but you have to get a vaccine to play?”