Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School

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As the academic year begins, some private high schools in Philadelphia are requiring students to get the COVID vaccine, along with all the other shots already mandated by the state.

Cristo Rey High School in North Philadelphia first notified parents via email three weeks ago their kids would have to be fully vaccinated to attend school, unless they had a documented exemption.

The goal is to avoid a return to all-virtual learning, according to Cristo Rey president John McConnell.

“They suffered academically, socially and emotionally,” McConnell said. “They suffered a lot of trauma from not being here together.”

Administrators at the 17th and Allegheny Catholic school settled on Oct. 4 as the deadline for all students to become fully vaccinated. Factor in the three-week waiting period between shots and the two weeks until the body develops immunity, and that means students needed to get their first shots by Monday — the first day of the academic year.

If they haven’t been approved for an exemption by the end of the week, McConnell said school administrators will begin helping students transfer.

Some parents were angry about the announcement, saying they didn’t get enough notice and that it’s too late to find their kids another school. But Aida Quiles is breathing a sigh of relief.

The 43-year-old Wynnefield resident has both her twin daughters enrolled at Cristo Rey. They were all vaccinated in May, because Quiles has underlying health conditions like diabetes and fibromyalgia. Her doctor warned her that if she caught COVID, she could get really sick.

“It’s like any other vaccine that kids have to get to go to school,” Quiles said. “Every year, they have to be up to date with shots in order for them to start in September. I don’t see why this would make it any different.”

Cristo Rey is part of a national network of private schools across the country, and McConnell estimated 8 to 10 branches are requiring student COVID vaccination. In Philadelphia, the private Quaker Germantown Friends School is doing the same thing, an employee confirmed to Billy Penn.

At the state level, Pennsylvania already requires students to get some vaccines before they start school — including immunizations for tetanus, polio, MMR and hepatitis B.

Philadelphia health officials instituted a COVID vaccine mandate for the city’s colleges and universities, and acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole has implored eligible high schoolers to get the shot too.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has called vaccine mandates for high schools a “good idea.”

Christo Rey students in 2018 Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Cristo Rey administrators say they didn’t spring their COVID vaccine requirement on parents and students. McConnell said all parents received an email asking them to get their kids vaxxed in June. Since then, the school has partnered with Temple University to host seven vaccination clinics on site.

All parents got a second vaccination notice in July. That month, Cristo Rey reached a 100% vaccination rate among faculty and staff — but hovered around 60% for students. On Aug. 11, McConnell officially announced COVID immunization as a requirement.

“The Cristo Rey model of academics, work and extracurriculars cannot be maintained in a population of students that includes such a substantial number of unvaccinated students,” the email read. “We have decided that we must require all Cristo Rey students be fully-vaccinated by October 4.”

By Monday morning, about 80% of Cristo Rey’s 568 students had gotten at least one shot. After the school’s Monday vaccination clinic, the rate rose to 88%.

“If you’re committed to not being vaccinated,” president McConnell explained to Billy Penn, “then we’re going to ask you to leave the school.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...