In at least one rural community, teachers have started receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Knox County health department in Indiana began vaccinating educators on Dec. 28, even though the state’s vaccine distribution plan is still in Phase 1A, which prioritizes health-care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. The state has said teachers will be in Phase 1B of the distribution plan.
But in Knox County, which is about two hours from Indianapolis and close to the Illinois border, the health department had hundreds of vaccines still sitting in their vials. Health-care workers were given the first opportunity to be vaccinated, but Dr. Alan Stewart, the county’s health officer, said only 1,000 front-line workers out of a potential 5,000 have signed up to be vaccinated so far.
Stewart personally called local dentists, optometrists, private practitioners, and the police and fire departments, but there were still openings in the vaccine clinic. To fill the open slots, county health officials decided to go ahead and offer the vaccine to local teachers and school administrators, as well as faculty at the local university.
Stewart said teachers felt like the right group to skip the line because they have face-to-face contact with a large number of people on a daily basis. (County schools have resumed in-person instruction this school year.) Health officials were also able to mobilize teachers quickly to make their appointments and get vaccinated. Stewart reached out to the four local superintendents on Monday morning, and teachers were getting shots in their arms by the afternoon.
Vaccine clinic appointments on Monday went from 60 to 195, Stewart said. “People were almost in tears of joy getting their shots.”
Valerie Kelly, a 5th grade teacher at Vigo Elementary School, saw an email from her superintendent with a link to sign up to get the vaccine at 1:11 pm on Monday. She got the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at 2:40 pm, and will get her second dose Jan. 18.
“It kind of felt like winning the lottery in a way,” she said. “When I got that email, it was like a light at the end of a really dark tunnel.”
Kelly is 65, and she helps care for her mother. This is her last year as a full-time teacher, and it’s been hard teaching with the safety restrictions in place, she said. She misses hugging her students. Receiving the vaccine, she said, was a relief: “I was emotional.”
Feeling Safer at Work After the Vaccine
Haley Lancaster, an English teacher at Lincoln High School, also got her first dose of the vaccine on Monday. While she said her students have been good about wearing masks and social distancing, being vaccinated will make her feel safer at work.
“I was not so much worried for myself, because I’m a 30-something healthy individual, but I did know that it meant that I can’t see my parents—my mom has a kidney transplant,” she said, adding that her parents only recently moved back to Indiana to be closer to her before the start of the pandemic. “Getting the vaccine is just huge for me. We’re one step closer to seeing my parents more often.”
A growing number of states have announced that they will prioritize teachers and school employees in the vaccine distribution plan, but most states—if not all—are still focused on administering vaccines to health-care workers and long-term care residents. Even so, there may be small communities across the country that are starting to inoculate teachers. The Evansville Courier & Press reported that some teachers in Evansville, Ind., received the vaccine on Dec. 26, since the local hospital had taken some vaccine vials out of the freezer and needed to administer them that day.
Knox County health officials received some criticism—and some questions from the state—for letting teachers go ahead of schedule, Stewart said. But he thinks it was the right call.
“As a physician, I’m committed to good health in the county, and I will never apologize for taking a vaccine out of a freezer and putting it in people’s arms,” he said. “The more people we can get vaccinated, it’s going to be better for our community.”
The county is only allowing licensed teachers and administrators to get vaccinated now, Stewart said. Other school employees will have to wait. But the county still has a large supply of vaccines.
Some people in the first phase of the distribution plan were concerned about getting such a new vaccine, Stewart said. Experts have said the vaccine is safe and effective. Still, vaccine hesitancy among K-12 personnel might be an issue for school leaders: Nationally, 29 percent of educators say they are “somewhat” or “very” unlikely to get the vaccine, according to nationally representative results of an EdWeek Research Center survey administered last month.
But the teachers in Knox County who were able to get the first dose of the vaccine say they feel overjoyed about the extra protection.
“Of course everybody realizes how important those front-line workers are,” Kelly said. “My sister’s a nurse, and we just admire them so much. … But teachers are essential, too.”