As Philadelphia educators get vaccinated, city’s Black teachers remain underrepresented

(Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — African Americans are underrepresented among a newly targeted group getting a significant chunk of the city’s weekly COVID-19 vaccines: Teachers in the Philadelphia public schools.

Black teachers make up 24.5 percent of the approximately 9,100 educators in the School District of Philadelphia for the 2020-21 school year, according to data listed on the district’s website. African Americans make up 44 percent of the city’s population.

White teachers are overrepresented among the teacher pool, accounting for nearly 67% of district teachers, while making up 34 percent of the city’s population.

The racial demographics among district teachers reveal inequities facing the rollout of the Kenney administration’s vaccination program, which has administered fewer vaccines to Blacks and other people of color in terms of their share of the city’s population.

Last week, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration kicked off a partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to vaccinate city educators and school staff in district, charter and private schools, as well as day-care workers.

The Kenney administration has pledged to commit up to 9,000 doses a week to vaccinate teachers, amounting to nearly 25 percent of the approximate 37,000 first COVID-19 vaccine doses the city expects to have this week, a health official said last week.

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Asked whether the underrepresentation of Black educators and other teachers of color will skew the city’s racial data in the coming weeks, Department of Public Health spokesman James Garrow was unsure.

“It’s impossible to say if the effort to vaccinate teachers, school staff, and childcare provider staff will alter the racial breakdown of the city’s vaccine effort because we don’t know how many people will assent to receiving the vaccine,” he said.

Monica Lewis, a spokeswoman for the district, said in an email that approximately 13,000 total district staff, including teachers, are eligible for the vaccine, which is not mandatory. She avoided answering questions about how the district would ensure an equitable distribution of vaccine doses or steps it has taken to address racial disparities among its teacher population in recent years.

“Since this program started, the district has stated that it is our hope that employees take advantage of this opportunity as vaccinations are yet another layer of safety to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Lewis said.

Sharif El-Mekki, the CEO of the nonprofit Center for Black Educator Development, said district officials “don’t need any more warnings” about the need to increase the racial diversity of its educators.

Yet El-Mekki said the racial disparities among district teachers represented systemic barriers to individuals of color becoming teachers and were not the fault of the district alone.

El-Mekki said the district and its partners, including the Kenney administration and state officials, have made strides in recent years in their efforts to support and attract teachers of color to the district but he stressed more was needed.

“We need to triple-down on it. We’ve had incremental change but we need to make even faster developments,” said El-Mekki, who heads the nonprofit that recently launched a $3.1-million program to recruit and support Black educators across the U.S.

Asked whether the Kenney administration considered the racial disparities among educators before launching the plan to vaccine educators, Garrow said the city’s Vaccine Advisory Committee (VAC) made the decision to vaccinate those groups because they are at an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“The administration has followed the Advisory Committee’s recommendations and adopted the priority scheme that they developed,” Garrow said.

“Furthermore, by vaccinating teachers, school staff, and child care staff, parents will likely feel more comfortable getting their children back into school and child care, which is important for their development,” he added.

Garrow said that child care provider staff and school staff were “more likely” to be from communities of color than teachers but did not specific figures.

The school district has made little progress in hiring teachers of color for a district where students of color make up about 85 percent of the student population this year.

Black teachers accounted for 24.6 percent of Philadelphia district teachers during the 2016-17 school year, according to district data. That same year, 68.4 percent of teachers identified as white.

Charter schools fared about the same during the 2016-17 school year, according a report from the nonprofit Research for Action using data from the state Department of Education.

Five years ago, educators in Philadelphia charter schools were overwhelmingly white — 70.3 percent — while Black teachers accounted for 19.9 percent of the teacher pool, according to Research for Action’s report.

The share of vaccines going to African Americans has ticked up in recent weeks, yet the COVID-19 vaccine racial gap persists more than two months after the first vaccine dose was administered in the city.

African Americans have received 22% of the first COVID-19 doses in the city as of Friday, up from 15 percent on Feb. 10, Garrow said. While whites have received more than 50 percent of the vaccine doses, according to city data.

Some district teachers are expected to return to their classrooms Wednesday in anticipation of students resuming in-person learning on March 8, the city and school officials said Monday.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.