Teachers should be prioritized in Covid-19 vaccinations

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Lanier Pickren

With the limited supply of Covid-19 vaccines, questions have risen– who should get these vaccines first?

Though the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt daily life, new hope has arisen as vaccines are being distributed across the country. However, with the limited supply of these vaccines, new questions arise: Who should be getting the vaccine first?

One group is noticeably missing from the first wave of vaccinations in Georgia: teachers. This is a major flaw that will make itself visible as schools return to in-person learning.

In Georgia, the current plan for vaccine administration has three phases: Phase 1-A, our current phase, includes healthcare workers, long-term care facilities staff and residents, adults 65+ and their caregivers, and first responders; Phase 1-B includes essential non-healthcare workers; Phase 1-C includes people age 16-64 with underlying health conditions.

Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has begun its optional tiered reopening plan. Most teachers as well students from Special Education and grades Pre-K through 5th who opted to return to in person learning are back in the building. Grades 6-12 returned on Feb. 16.

APS teachers even held a rally in late January to protest the lack of choice they were given to return to in-person learning. Just a few weeks later, an APS high school office clerk at South Atlanta High School, Melissa Sheats, passed away due to Covid-19. While teachers with health conditions have been allowed to continue working remotely, this virus has brutally attacked even the fittest of individuals. Data shows that 38 percent of excess deaths from March to August in people aged 25 to 44 were caused by Covid-19.

Teachers have put their health on the line to return to in-person learning, so they should be included among essential workers to receive the vaccine, for both their safety and students’ safety. Teachers are critical workers, critical to the development of the future generations of American leaders. Letting teachers get vaccinated in one of the first phases, in addition to following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended safety guidelines, would make return to in-person learning safer for everyone, and alleviate some of the anxiety that teachers, parents and students face when deciding to return.

Some states have begun vaccinating teachers. Across the U.S., 28 states, including Washington, D.C., have already begun the process. In Georgia, this isn’t the case. Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to add individuals aged 65+ to phase 1-A pushed teachers out of the running. In late January, elected board officials from metro Atlanta school districts, including APS board members Eshe’ Collins, Jason Esteves, Leslie Grant and Ericka Mitchell, sent a letter to Gov. Kemp requesting that he take steps to prioritize teacher safety.

These steps included prioritizing access to Covid-19 vaccines for teachers and school staff members; providing medical-grade face masks for all staff; and collecting and reviewing anonymous feedback related to Covid-19 from staff. Kemp responded that there are simply not enough vaccines right now to cover the vaccinations of educators.

However, flaws in Georgia’s vaccine roll-out have caused some vaccines to go unused. As of Feb. 22nd, Georgia has received 2,292,085 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, but has only used 82 percent of the doses, and as of Feb. 22nd, Georgia was ranked 37th in the nation for vaccine roll-out. The short shelf-life of the vaccines has caused many eligible vaccines to go to waste, as many state guidelines require unused but thawed vaccines to be thrown out at the end of the day.

In Elbert County, healthcare workers at the Medical Center of Elberton tried to fix this issue by opening up vaccines to local teachers and school workers, after all willing healthcare workers and first responders had been vaccinated. While the Medical Center had not finished vaccinating all willing senior citizens aged 65 and up, it decided to simultaneously vaccinate teachers in order to minimize the amount of vaccines thrown out, and help make the in-person Elbert County Schools safer. The Georgia Department of Public Health seized around 470 doses of the Pfizer vaccine from the center for moving ahead of phase 1-A, and gave the center a nearly 2-month suspension from vaccine distribution.

The suspending vaccine distribution is a ridiculous punishment, as it prevents more people from being vaccinated, which the state is supposed to be currently advocating for. With this punishment, the state has shown it cares more about “law and order” instead of the health of citizens. While the vaccines were redistributed to other centers in the county, the Medical Center of Elberton was the largest and most central distribution center. Furthermore, as a rural county, schools didn’t have a choice but to be in-person, as resources for virtual learning were low. By opening up vaccines to teachers, the Medical Center of Elberton was trying to locally fix a problem that the state refused to fix.

The situation in Elbert County goes to show how desperate people are to vaccinate teachers, and are taking it into their own hands to get things done. As schools across Georgia and in APS continue to move toward reopening, it’s inevitable that the risk for Covid-19 infection will go up along with cases. If Georgia wants to push for normalcy, Kemp must make room for vaccinating educators in the beginning phases.

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