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Shots in Arms, and Plans for Reopening

  • In Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., all staff wanting to receive COVID-19 vaccines got shots in arms by mid-February, and the district geared up to possibly reopen schools. One big change under consideration: a plan to have a nurse in every building.

    Numerous school districts, including Denver Public Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Kansas City Public Schools, announced partnerships with local hospital systems to vaccinate all staff who want immunization.

    And in mid-February the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a step-by-step plan to get teachers and students back in classrooms while urging that K-12 schools be reopened as soon as possible with precautions.

    Vaccines for teachers should be a priority but not a prerequisite for reopening, the CDC said. Grouping students in pods, using cafeterias and auditoriums for instruction and seating students one per row on buses were among the recommendations.

    The agency reiterated the view that schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen in any community. 

    Meanwhile, districts scrambled to vaccinate staff against the coronavirus as fast as supplies and state rules on eligibility permitted.

    Iowa’s Des Moines Public Schools partnered with a local health provider, MercyOne, to deliver first doses to 1,000 employees, 20 percent of the staff, shortly before the district resumed in-person instruction five days a week. Eighty percent of staff indicated they want the vaccine, and initial time slots filled up in 17 minutes, the district noted.

    The Cleveland Metropolitan School District partnered with the Cleveland Board of Public Health to launch vaccinations centers at two high schools to serve 7,000 district employees as well as employees of 26 local charter and parochial schools. In the first three days vaccines were available, the district’s school nurses vaccinated 2,400 people. Cleveland CEO Eric Gordon

    “The more of us that get the vaccine, the better the opportunity to make sure that our classrooms, our schools, are safe for an in-person return and it’s an extremely important piece of the puzzle,” said Shari Obrenski, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union in a video on the district’s website.

    According to Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon, the school district will open for in-person learning based on the local health data as well as how the vaccination process is going.

    “If we are on track that will allow us to open sooner,” said Gordon. “If we have delays or do not get enough vaccines that will make a difference on when we can open.”

    Personnel in districts across the nation volunteered to aid front-line testing and vaccination efforts, including the health services team in the Anchorage School District.  

    “Each day we have vaccinated about 1,000 grandmas and grandpas. It has [generated] such good will,” a district spokesperson said in an email. “Our interest is outward as well as inward—the more the prior tier gets vaccinated, the closer we are to helping our teachers get the vaccine.” 

    In Seattle Public Schools, the district identified 8,000 employees with skills useful to the city-wide vaccination effort and advised volunteers they would be released from duties while maintaining salary and benefits.

    In Los Angeles, Superintendent Austin Beutner emphasized to state and county officials that schools “are uniquely situated – and uniquely qualified – to help” in community vaccination efforts. Schools already are involved in food distribution efforts, are serving as COVID testing centers and operate licensed health clinics in high-needs areas, he noted. 

    “Few organizations in the Los Angeles area have this deep and proven set of capabilities and few are as trusted by the community,” Beutner said. “Families trust schools to keep their children safe and that trust extends to the entire family. A trusted partner providing the vaccination at a trusted location will increase the chances of a successful and more speedy vaccination effort.”

    The Council of the Great City Schools made similar points in a letter to President Biden, offering support to the administration in attaining its goal of reopening most schools within 100 days of his inauguration. The nation’s school districts have strategic, relevant assets including “school buildings in every corner of our communities,” school buses and drivers that could be deployed, sophisticated communications systems, school nurses and school custodians, according to the letter.

    In numerous districts, there emerged a pattern in vaccination eligibility: nurses and health clinic workers first, then elementary, special-education and ESL teachers, then middle school teachers, then high school staffers.

    In Cincinnati Public Schools, where vaccinations for 6,000 school employees began in late January, Superintendent Laura Mitchell was at Cincinnati Superintendent Laura Mitchell the front of the line – to set an example, she said. 

    “I cannot ask our staff to step forward and be vaccinated if I am not willing to do the same, especially knowing the hesitancy that some people feel about the vaccine,” Mitchell said, according to Cincinnati.com. 

    “The pandemic may not be over, but the arrival of the vaccine brings hope for our staff, our students, our neighborhoods and our community.”

    Jefferson County schools superintendent Marty Pollio described how schools might reopen in early spring, with elementary classrooms open every weekday and middle and high schools on hybrid schedules. But, he said, operations will look much different, with measures including social distancing, masking mandates and temperature screenings.

    The district has 64 school nurses and six nurse practitioners with a plan to add 90 nurses to be in schools and to assist with contact tracing. 

    With in-person instruction, “contract tracing and quarantining will be a reality for the rest of this year at a minimum, and who knows what next year will bring?” Pollio told the school board, according to WRDB.com. 

    Speaking to the school board, Louisville’s chief health strategist, Dr. Sarah Moyer, added a sobering rationale for getting teachers vaccinated: data showing overdoses and homicides involving young people under 18 on the rise.

     “Probably the number-one reason why Kentucky decided to prioritize K-12 educators [was in] looking at all that data and seeing how important schools are for our community,” Moyer said, according to WAVE3 News. 

    Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear made educators a priority in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, calling it a “workforce issue,” and the state health department in December collected names of public and private school staff who wanted a vaccine – more than 80,000 people in all.

    Oregon also moved educators to the front of the line but fewer than half the states gave education workers that same priority, as of mid-February.

    Barry Bloom, an infectious diseases and global health professor at Harvard University, told USA Today any decision to vaccinate teachers in a speedy fashion reflects “a tradeoff.”

    “If the focus is on saving lives, as you’ve seen in most states, school teachers don’t score at the top,” Bloom told the news outlet. “If you focus on creating conditions for society to function, I would put teachers at the very top.”

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, acknowledged as much in an online talk with the leaders of the two national teachers’ unions. Schools need funding for masks, testing, ventilation and other mitigation efforts but getting teachers vaccinated is key, he said.

    “We’re not going to get back to normal until we get the children back in schools,” Fauci said.