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New Jersey teachers hope vaccine priority gets them back in the classroom —‘where we belong’

New Jersey Education Association President Marie Blistan expects most public school teachers and support staff will opt to get COVID-19 vaccine.

The Gloucester County COVID-19 vaccine site at Rowan College South Jersey in Deptford, N.J., on Jan. 8.
The Gloucester County COVID-19 vaccine site at Rowan College South Jersey in Deptford, N.J., on Jan. 8.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Laura Williams, a counselor at the Oak Valley School in Deptford, plans to get her second coronavirus vaccine on Saturday. She is in school four days a week; students come two days under a hybrid model.

“I feel like I needed to do my part for herd immunity,” said Williams, 44, of Williamstown, the mother of two sons. “I do think it is a step in the right direction, but I don’t shame anyone who decides not to get the vaccine. It’s a personal decision.”

It’s also a decision that thousands of teachers across the state will face in the coming weeks. Gov. Phil Murphy announced this week that teachers, support staff, and public transportation workers will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on March 15. On Saturday, Murphy plans to visit a mass vaccination site at Rowan College of New Jersey in Sewell, where teachers are expected to get shots.

But some wonder: Will these steps be enough to get more students and their teachers back in school?

“I’m very anxious. I want it done immediately,” said West Deptford school superintendent Gregory Cappello.

The decision by Murphy came amid mounting pressure across the country to get teachers who want the shot vaccinated as soon as possible in an effort to reopen more schools fully and get students back in classrooms. Many believe getting the vaccine will ease some anxiety for teachers hesitant about returning to school for in-person learning.

President Joe Biden said he wants states to give priority to teachers and would use the full authority of the federal government to get them at least one shot by the end of the month. According to Education Week, at least 34 states, including Pennsylvania, have prioritized teachers. Philadelphia is already vaccinating teachers.

Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said most of the state’s public school teachers and support staff who educate 1.4 million students plan to get the vaccine, and she thinks wider inoculation “absolutely” will lead to the resumption of in-person instruction.

“I’m sure our members will be going back,” she said.

The union plans to work with state officials to set up vaccination sites at schools where teachers can get shots during school hours or get priority for weekend appointments at other sites, Blistan said. One district is giving employees paid time off to get vaccinated, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Some educators, especially those with underlying health conditions, are among the more than 2 million people in New Jersey who have already had at least the first shot. Experts said teachers don’t have to get vaccinated before schools can reopen safely, but some teachers want to see as many of their colleagues get shots as possible.

“It gets us one step closer to getting back into the classrooms and to the people we love, our students,” said Angel Santiago, a fifth-grade teacher at Loring Flemming Elementary in Blackwood and New Jersey’s 2020-2021 Teacher of the Year. “It’s been a long time.”

In Monmouth County, more than 600 teachers from several districts were vaccinated during an event last month at CentraState Hospital in Freehold, according to the NJEA. The hospital offered extra vaccine doses to teachers.

Christopher Chavarria, a science teacher at the Charles Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, hopes to get a vaccine appointment soon. His district plans to resume some in-person classes in April.

“I’ll take any shot,” said Chavarria, 55. “I’ll be grateful when I get the vaccination and our whole building gets it, too.”

Already back in her classroom at Orchard Valley Middle School in Washington Township, Adrienne Choma, a sixth-grade language arts teacher, said getting the vaccine would make her even more comfortable. Her Gloucester County school is open five days a week.

“It is a step in the right direction,” Choma said. “I feel good in school. This is where we belong.”

April Byars Lee, an English teacher at Lindenwold High School, plans to get her second dose next week, but she cautions that teacher vaccinations will not immediately reverse changes instituted because of the coronavirus, such as social distancing and no lunch periods. Students, who have been remote for almost a year, are expected to return April 12.

“School isn’t going to be the same,” said Lee, an educator for two decades. “It’s not going to be the way it used to be for a long time.”

Blistan, the union leader, said one goal is to ensure that schools continue to follow safety guidelines.

“We’re going to have to be vigilant or we’re going to go backward,” Blistan said. “We can’t let our guard down.”