Vaccinating Our Educators
By Angela Deines, KNEA Communications
Please Note: The information contained in this article may be updated to reflect new information as we receive it.
With an additional 25,000 vaccine doses per week expected to arrive in Kansas soon, Gov. Laura Kelly has announced K-12 teachers, administrators and other educational support staff will receive priority in getting the COVID-19 inoculations.
“We want our kids back in the classroom,” Gov. Kelly said at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka this week. “We all know that virtual school is not ideal. It creates a myriad of challenges for students, their parents, the teachers and the districts.”
While she stood by the decision to close school buildings for in-person classroom learning last March in response to the global pandemic, Gov. Kelly acknowledged that “prolonged remote learning is not sustainable.”
The governor’s “Back to School Vaccination Plan” includes sending the extra vaccine vials the Kansas Department of Health and Environment receives from the federal government to the state’s county health departments. The county health departments will then coordinate with the Kansas State Department of Education and local school districts to vaccinate all school staff. The vaccines, along with additional rapid testing supplies and continued adherence to the other mitigation strategies for in-person learning, Gov. Kelly said students should be able to safely return to the classroom.
“I want to make clear that we are able to implement the ‘Back to School Vaccination Plan’ because Kansas is receiving substantially more doses than we had been,” Gov. Kelly said. Kansas was receiving 45,000 doses a month ago and about 90,000 last week, she said. White House officials informed her this week Kansas can expect 115,000 doses per week going forward.
Through KNEA’s Government Relations arm, Gov. Kelly and her administration officials have maintained open lines of communication throughout the pandemic. The first-term Democratic governor has continued to meet virtually with teachers as well, including KNEA members, to hear their concerns regarding their students and their classrooms over the course of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Governor Kelly has always held educators in the highest regard,” said Mark Farr, KNEA president. “We know from our communication with her and her staff that front-line workers like Kansas educators are her top priority when it comes to vaccine distribution needed to get us all on a road to to recovery. The proof that Governor Kelly puts students first is in her effort to ensure that the adults who work most closely with students are safe, healthy, and equipped to do the extraordinary work of shepherding students through a global crisis.”
KNEA members begin getting vaccinations
Although there is a patchwork of plans across the U.S. to vaccinate teachers, Kansas educators have increasingly been prioritized and have been receiving the COVID-19 shots since just after the first of the year.
On Feb. 12, the same day the CDC released its official guidelines for reopening schools, Shawnee County Health Department officials announced they would be working with two major hospital systems in Topeka to get all interested K-12 public and private school teachers and support staff, including bus drivers, their first vaccination shot by spring break in March.
“We felt like the county and the district (Topeka USD 501) must have been collaborating somehow to bump us up to get the shots in February,” said Richard Bolejack, president of NEA-Topeka. “We were just surprised, truly, that we were going to get the shots this quickly.”
In Reno County, several members of EA #309 Nickerson-South Hutchinson were able to get vaccinated in early January.
“I got the vaccine because my dad has Stage IV cancer,” said Misty McCurdy, a reading instructor at Reno Valley Middle School. “I just want to make sure that I was safe to be around him. I’m not really worried about myself. I just was more worried about keeping my family safe and my students.”
“The reason that I got the shot is my husband is a heart patient and he has a pacemaker,” added Kris Jenkins, a preschool teacher at Nickerson Elementary. “I haven’t been to the farm to see my elderly parents since July, and it’s about killing me. So I want to be healthy enough to be around them over spring break, and not bring anything home to my husband.”
“I personally wanted the vaccine for my family and for my educational family as well, both students and the people I work with,” added Jolene Reed, a speech and hearing impaired therapist at Buhler Elementary and member of the Reno County Co-Op NEA. “Then I just really wanted to make sure that I stay as healthy as I can.”
Shiloh Blasdel, a classroom teacher at South Hutchinson Elementary, said she got the vaccine to reduce the chance of getting COVID-19 again after having contracted it earlier in 2020 and to protect her family. However, she said she also wanted it so schools could re-open safely.
“I hope that with getting the vaccine that we can hopefully open next year with lesser restrictions with masks and all the other things that we have to do at school just so it can be more normal for our students,” she said. “I’d really like to get as normal as possible, just for our students and for our communities.”
“I really feel this is essential to keeping our schools open and I want to see our school stay open and have more people at school,” added Travis Hampl, another Reno Valley Middle School teacher who talked about his reasons for getting the COVID-19 vaccine. “I think this was a really crucial first step and I’m excited to get the second dose and I recommend this to all Kansas teachers.”
Vaccinations on the national level
The nation’s most recognized infectious disease expert has a vested interest in making sure U.S. public schools safely re-open: one of his three daughters has been an elementary school science teacher in New Orleans for the past several years.
“We want to get teachers vaccinated as fast as we can,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, now advising his seventh President of the United States. “That will hopefully get to the goal that we all want…to get the children back to school.”
Fauci spoke in late January about the approach needed to re-open America’s schools during a virtual “fireside chat” with NEA president Becky Pringle and AFT president Randi Weingarten.
“When you talk about the things that are important to you,” Fauci said, referring to COVID-19 related school issues, “I hear them also on phone calls daily with my daughter.”
“We’re not going to get back to normal until we get children back into school, both for the good of the children, for the good of the parents, and for the good of the community,” Fauci, chief medical advisor to the Biden Administration, continued. “We want to make sure we do that by giving the teachers and the teams associated with teachers the resources that they need to do that. The idea of, ‘go do it on your own’—that doesn’t work.”
NEA members from Kansas and across the U.S. submitted questions prior to the virtual event. Weingarten asked Fauci the question submitted from Ron Hobert, a member of United Teachers of Wichita: “How can we protect both staff and students who are in face-to-face education settings as we move into the more critical stages of the pandemic in the next four months?”
“The President is taking very seriously the issue both from the student standpoint and from the teacher standpoint,” Fauci said, referring the American Rescue Plan for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, including the safe re-opening of schools. “We really want to and believe that the schools need to reopen in the next hundred days, essentially all the K-8 schools within 100 days. That’s the goal.”
The Biden Administration’s ambitious $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes ramping up vaccinations for all Americans, including teachers, but is leaving the rollout for vaccinating educators up to each states’ governors.
“The National Education Association strongly stands behind educators who have determined that they need access to COVID-19 vaccines to ensure that their workplaces are safer, whether they are currently working in person or will be returning to school buildings,” said NEA President Becky Pringle, “and educators need to have access to COVID-19 vaccines now, period.”
However, the official CDC guidelines released on Feb. 12 for safely reopening schools didn’t include making vaccinations for teachers a prerequisite for going back to full time, in-person classroom teaching.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said the federal agency and the Biden Administration are strongly encouraging states to “prioritize teachers and other school staff to get vaccinated.”
“We must ensure the teachers and school staff are healthy and protected from getting COVID-19 in places outside of schools where they might be at higher risk,” she said.
Under the CDC’s operational strategy, the following five mitigation strategies (masks and physical distancing taking priority), that if layered and used correctly on top of each other, make schools safer for in-person learning:
- PHYSICAL DISTANCING
- HANDWASHING AND RESPIRATORY ETIQUETTE
- CLEANING AND MAINTAINING HEALTHY FACILITIES
- AND DIAGNOSTIC AND RAPID AND EFFICIENT-CONTACT TRACING, IN COMBINATION WITH ISOLATION AND QUARANTINE, AND IN COLLABORATION WITH THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT.
Walensky said even with the release of the operational strategy, the “CDC is not mandating that schools reopen.”
“These recommendations, simply, provide schools a long-needed roadmap for how to do so, safely, under different levels of disease in the community,” she said. “The science, also, shows us that K to 12 schools that have impIemented strict mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open.”
President Biden’s American Rescue Plan would also put $35 billion into the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund so that colleges – including community colleges, public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority serving institutions to “have critical resources to implement public health protocols, execute distance learning plans, and provide emergency grants to students in need.”
The American Rescue Plan also includes $5 billion for governors as part of the Hardest Hit Education Fund to “support educational programs and the learning needs of students significantly impacted by COVID-19, whether K-12, higher education, or early childhood education programs.”