After months of teaching eighth graders both in person and through a computer screen, Michele Curay-Cramer breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday — for her school, her district. and so many of her fellow teachers.
Like tens of thousands statewide, they might soon get their coronavirus shot.
“Honestly, I’m a little stunned,” said Curay-Cramer, an English teacher who leads the 940-member teachers association in the West Chester Area School District. “It’s been such a long time — it has to sink in.”
Nearly a year since the pandemic upended the education system, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that educators would be eligible to be vaccinated as early as next week, the latest step as Pennsylvania inched closer toward a measure of normalcy.
Wolf delivered the news at a Harrisburg briefing the day after President Joe Biden directed states to prioritize teachers for vaccination and said that inoculating teachers and staff was “an important step to getting students back into the classroom safely.”
Though schools can still make their own decisions about when and how fully to reopen, Wolf said the move should help alleviate teachers’ concerns about returning to the classroom. “If you’ve been offered a vaccine,” he said, “you ought to be willing to go back to school.”
While Philadelphia — which is administering doses independently — has already started vaccinating teachers, most Pennsylvania educators were not eligible in the first phase as the state targeted residents over 65 and others with high-risk conditions.
But the approval last weekend of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine enables the commonwealth to focus on educators without slowing the timetable for other residents to get their shots, Wolf said.
Pennsylvania expects to receive 94,600 Johnson & Johnson doses and will distribute them to educators, Wolf said — prioritizing those working with students in elementary schools, students with disabilities, and English-language learners. An additional 30,000 Johnson & Johnson doses will be going to pharmacies, and early-childhood workers will be able to access those, Wolf said.
Pennsylvania will distribute the doses to the state’s Intermediate Units — the regional education entities — which will work with local pre-K-12 schools to identify educators interested in receiving the vaccine. Among the staff included in the priority group are bus drivers and other support staff. Vaccinations will start March 10 at the IUs, and will be administered with the help of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
With an estimated 200,000 school staff statewide, according to Wolf, not all educators will be able to get the new vaccine in the first round. But, the governor said, “We should have enough vaccines to cover the entire education community, private and public, by the end of March.”
Many states have already prioritized teachers for vaccination. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this week announced that teachers and other frontline workers would become eligible for doses starting March 15.
Pennsylvania education groups, including the state’s largest teachers’ union, had been pressing for educators to be eligible as communities continue to debate how fully to reopen school buildings. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said vaccination is not a prerequisite for bringing students back to classrooms, some schools have struggled to reopen because not enough teachers are willing or able to return with the virus and its variants still circulating.
Wolf said the availability of vaccines “should give educators that last ounce of confidence that they can in fact go back into the classroom and be safe.” But at the same time, Pennsylvania is not endorsing full reopenings: Officials on Wednesday said they had aligned their recommendations to CDC guidelines, calling for hybrid in-person and virtual instruction in communities with moderate transmission rates of the virus, and fully virtual instruction when transmission is substantial.
“Our limiting factor is going to be the six-foot spacing right now,” said Superintendent Christopher Dormer of the Norristown Area School District, which will begin returning students to classrooms in April in a hybrid model. “The CDC has not moved that mark.” Neither has Montgomery County, though some other area counties have.
If the Pennsylvania education and health departments change their guidance, “then we will change with them,” Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County commissioners, said Wednesday.
Still, school leaders were hopeful the vaccine would ease the return to classrooms. In the Cheltenham School District, which hasn’t been able to reopen its high school because it doesn’t have enough teachers to staff all its classes, Superintendent Wagner Marseille said he was “extremely optimistic” that the newly available doses would help reopening efforts.
“I hope teachers can begin to understand, light is at the end of the tunnel,” he said, predicting the “extra layer of mitigation” from vaccines would enable the district “to open our doors a lot wider to bring students in.”
In the Lower Merion School District, spokesperson Amy Buckman said administrators would present a plan next week about increasing in-person instruction.
“The availability of vaccines for educators is certainly welcome news, as it is another mitigation strategy that will likely help our staff, students and community feel safe,” Buckman said.
For schools moving toward full-time instruction, vaccines will “certainly help teachers feel more comfortable,” said Curay-Cramer, who had been fielding messages from fellow teachers in the West Chester district hoping for appointments. Scanning her email between classes Wednesday, she was eager for details on the distribution.
“I hope it can get done as quickly as they say it will,” she said.