(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday marks the end of a three-week campaign to vaccinate school workers across the state.
As of April 2, the administration said more than 112,500 educators and support staff received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. The state estimated about 200,000 residents were eligible under the initiative.
“This is a great success, and I am so proud of everyone who made it happen,” Wolf said during a visit to the Luzerne Intermediate Unit in Kingston. “We know that teachers and students want to be back in the classroom where students can learn, laugh and grow with their friends.”
The task force set a goal of inoculating all teachers, administrators and support staff who wanted the vaccine within one month. The first of 28 vaccination clinics, operated by the Pennsylvania National Guard in partnership with a private medical firm, opened on March 10.
“Vaccines are the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to this pandemic, and with the completion of this special initiative, we are one step closer to the end of that tunnel,” Wolf said. “That is something for everyone in the commonwealth to celebrate.”
Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, called the effort “extraordinary” and said it will “ensure a safer environment for in-person instruction in our schools – protecting the health of educators, support professionals, students, and their families.”
“Today is a turning point in the lives of our schools and our students here in Pennsylvania, and PSEA’s members are so excited about what lies ahead,” he said.
Askey said that some schools have already reopened their doors after “many months” of remote instruction while others are bringing students back into the classroom part time.
Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said schools are now “closer than ever to a safe, full return to in-person teaching and learning.”
But it’s unclear what else districts must do before all schools resume in-person learning at all grade levels – a fact that’s likely to rile Republican lawmakers who believe the shutdowns have gone on too long and created too many learning gaps among students.
House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, said last month schools that don’t offer in-person learning in the fall should forfeit state funding. A spokesman for the House Republican Caucus said the idea holds merit with other members because many feel “returning to a normal course of education is imperative to the future of many across Pennsylvania.”
The American Rescue Plan sent Pennsylvania schools $5 billion in aid, 20% of which must address learning loss as a result of the pandemic. State education dollars come with a similar 5% mandate, the Department of Education said last month.
Ortega later called Saylor’s threats an “unproductive” distraction from districts reopening plans, bolstered by the infusion of federal stimulus and the ahead-of-schedule vaccination effort.
Askey said Friday that districts must still exercise caution and social distancing guidelines because none of the COVID-19 vaccinations are authorized for use in anyone under the age of 16.
“The pandemic isn’t over, but we are on a path to getting more students back into the classroom and our economy back on track,” he said. “And that is a milestone that we have been looking forward to for a long, long time.”