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More teachers getting vaccinated in push to restore normalcy

Kunal Mahto/iStock
Kunal Mahto/iStock

By SOPHIE TATUM and CHEYENNE HASLETT, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — As many schools across the country remain closed for in-person learning, some have begun vaccinating educators.

While students, parents and educators all have had to juggle uncertainty surrounding pandemic learning — finding child care, ensuring internet access for virtual learning, adjusting to socially distanced classrooms — the pandemic has shown an even harsher light on systemic disparities.

In Tennessee, officials announced last month that school and child care staff would be eligible for the vaccine after it’s given to health care workers and the residents and staff of long-term care facilities. And according to the Tennessee Department of Health’s website, a number of counties have moved into that phase — students can get back into classrooms and their parents back to work.

“We are very pleased to see that the access to the vaccine will be made available to educators earlier rather than later,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association. “We know that it’s going to be a critical part of getting life back to normal.”

Seventh grade social studies teacher Joe Crabtree, who, like many during the pandemic, hasn’t seen his family in a year, teaches at Liberty Bell Middle School in Johnson City, Tennessee, which is planning to return to a hybrid schedule on Monday.

Crabtree told ABC News he received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week.

“It felt like for the first time in nine months, I can, I can just breathe,” he said. “I know I can still get [COVID-19]. But I’ve got a much less chance of getting it now.”

Crabtree said he’s hopeful to achieve a greater sense of normalcy during the school year.

“I’m realistic. I’m a middle school educator — germs are everywhere,” Crabtree said. “I don’t want to run the risk of, you know, exposing this to my family. And so many people here, we’ve had to make a decision between our career and our family.”

Teachers in Utah, Virginia and Connecticut have been told they’re next in line and could start getting vaccines or registering for appointments over the next week. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced on Friday teachers would be eligible starting Monday.

“We are encouraging districts to prioritize those teachers and front-line staff by age and comorbidities,” Cox added.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam tweeted on Friday “that 11 health districts will begin vaccinating people in Group 1B starting the week of January 11,” also noting that this includes teachers.

Teachers in Oregon and Colorado are expecting to get vaccines next month. In Cherry Creek, Colorado, a handful of school nurses received them last week. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has asked local health departments statewide to prepare for administration to teachers and other front-line workers on Feb. 28.

“I think we’ve treated teachers as front-line workers in many moments throughout these past few months, and it would be, in my mind, a grave mistake and a disservice to their dedication to not include them and actually prioritize them as we move forward,” Connecticut state Sen. Will Haskell told ABC News in a phone interview. “I’ve talked to a lot of teachers who are really excited, largely because, of course, they’re concerned about their own health and safety, and because they’re really eager to continue serving their students.”

Amid tense debate over whether fully returning to school is safe, it can’t realistically happen without doing more to ensure teachers’ safety.

“I think that nobody wants to be back, in-person instruction, more than more than educators do,” said John Larson, president of Oregon’s statewide teacher’s union, the Oregon Education Association. “It’s what they’ve dedicated their lives to — it’s just that it needs to be safe. And the vaccine would go a long way towards helping people feel that they’re safe in doing their job.”

While leaders in other states may feel pressured to follow suit, questions remain over whether other school employees also soon will be vaccinated.

In Oregon, since Gov. Kate Brown announced that educators would be among the next group to receive vaccines, and that schools should try to reopen by Feb. 15, Larson has watched what was once an organized, statewide plan split into a different plan for each of the state’s 195 school districts.

Larson said he hasn’t heard anything that would support the state’s timeline for getting teachers vaccinated in time to return to the classroom. Instead, he said he’s heard a mixed bag of dates from various districts, including some that have told him they’re getting vaccinated in the next few weeks while others said they may not see a vaccine until July.

“Even if they know what category they’re in and they know what dates they’re going to be, nobody has been told how they’re going to be administering it,” he said, adding that some rural districts are at least an hour away from the nearest hospital. “We just haven’t seen any kind of a plan of how they’re going to distribute the vaccine.”

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