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‘Absolutely game-changing’: Teachers in the Philly suburbs have begun getting coronavirus vaccines

Teachers say Pennsylvania's vaccination program “will have a ripple effect,” helping bring students back safely.

Student teacher Sophia Bonavolonta, left, works with student Aiden Moore at Belmont Charter School in February. Teachers are in Pennsylvania are now being vaccinated.
Student teacher Sophia Bonavolonta, left, works with student Aiden Moore at Belmont Charter School in February. Teachers are in Pennsylvania are now being vaccinated.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Cheltenham High School English teacher Kristin Keiser couldn’t click the vaccine sign-up link fast enough.

For Keiser, her vaccination on Wednesday will mean the difference between working from home and having the flexibility to go into her school building.

”I’ve just been in this holding pattern,” said Keiser, who had taken medical leave when Cheltenham High briefly offered in-person classes (it is back to virtual, for now). “Now, with the vaccination and with the mitigation steps the district has done, I feel comfortable going in.”

After months of uncertainty over when they would be vaccinated, teachers in three of the four Philadelphia suburbs — Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties — have begun getting coronavirus vaccines and are feeling hopeful after an anxious year of virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning amid a global pandemic. Chester County is set to begin vaccinations Friday.

These teachers and other school staff are among the first people in Pennsylvania to get the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine. The initiative is supplied by the state’s first shipment of 94,600 J&J doses and coordinated by the state Department of Health, Department of Education, and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Public, private, and parochial school staff who work with students in pre-K through 12th grade are eligible to sign up for these sites, Pennsylvania officials said, with priority given to those who work with elementary schoolers, students with disabilities, and English-language learners. Across the commonwealth, most clinics, which are to have daily and weekend hours, have the capacity to vaccinate 500 people a day, PEMA director Randy Padfield said last week, while ones in larger areas, such as the collar counties, can give as many as 1,000 shots a day.

Not included in this new, voluntary program are Philadelphia teachers, thousands of whom have already been vaccinated through a partnership with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia School District, and the city, which has its own vaccine allotment and distribution plan.

» READ MORE: 9,000 Philly teachers have been vaccinated and thousands more are eligible as some schools prepare to open Monday

For Norristown, where teachers will be vaccinated Tuesday, the state vaccine program is “absolutely game-changing,” said Superintendent Christopher Dormer.

The district remains all-virtual a year into the pandemic but will begin in-person instruction April 5. At that point, more than 90% of staff will be vaccinated and past the two-week immunity period, Dormer said.

“This is a huge piece of anxiety that comes off their minds and plates,” he said. “Now they can just focus on being excited to see kids in the classrooms.”

Kevin Manero, an English teacher at North Penn High School, was set to get his shot Thursday night.

“I feel very fortunate that I have the opportunity to get it,” said Manero, a 19-year veteran teacher. “I know there’s a lot of people that might resent the fact that teachers are in line before some other people, but getting us back in the classroom will have a ripple effect.”

North Penn is operating in a hybrid model, with students learning virtually some days and in person others. To date, the largest class Manero has taught in person is 10 students, but he said he feels the tide is turning, with “more and more kids are starting to come in.”

Manero, also North Penn’s baseball coach, said he is relieved that the vaccines are rolling out as baseball season gears up.

”Our kids didn’t have a season last year, and we want to do everything we can to make sure that this season goes off smoothly,” Manero said. “That means keeping the coaches healthy, too.”

Lower Merion School District blocked off hundreds of appointments for its teachers this Sunday, and Jeff Cahill, a Lower Merion High social studies teacher, signed up for vaccination right away.

For Cahill, whose school is scheduled to move from a two-day-a-week hybrid model to having students in classrooms four days a week, the main emotion is “relief,” he said. “I’ll worry less about what I’m going to bring home to an immunocompromised kid.”

After being notified that a sign-up link for vaccines was coming, Theresa Primus, a first-grade teacher at Glen Acres Elementary in the West Chester Area School District, was eagerly checking her email and “very, very excited” to get a Saturday appointment.

Like other West Chester teachers, Primus is readying for her students to return full time. She’s teaching half of her students in person and the other half over Zoom. Knowing that she’ll soon have more students in her classroom, “I’m relieved” to be getting a vaccine, Primus said. Her 83-year-old mother lives with her, she said, and she and her husband have been particularly careful not to have visitors or risk exposure.

“It’s been my biggest worry all year,” she said of infecting her mother. Protecting teachers, she said, is “vital” to getting more children back in the classroom.