The news that Texas teachers and other school employees are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine could help ease staffing issues that have plagued Fort Worth schools for months.
Fort Worth school leaders have had to ask teachers to double up classes and draft librarians, reading coaches and other support staff to cover for teachers who were either out sick or quarantining after being exposed to the virus. But in districts outside of Texas where teachers have had access to the vaccine for weeks, those staffing shortages are already beginning to improve.
Michael Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock school district, said staffing issues forced the district to find ways to cover classes, including asking teachers to hold doubled-up classes in auditoriums and cafeterias. But Arkansas made the vaccine available to teachers, administrators and support staff in late January. Now, about half as many teachers are out sick on any given day as compared to December, he said.
About 55% of school employees in Little Rock are fully vaccinated, Poore said, and more receive the vaccine every week. Poore said he’s visited vaccination clinics and watched teachers get the shot.
“It’s celebratory,” Poore said. “People are really, really happy.”
Vaccination helps on quarantine requirement
On Wednesday, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced school and child care workers would be eligible to receive the vaccine. The move came after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services directed states to begin offering vaccinations to teachers, school staff and bus drivers, as well as those who work at licensed child care providers.
Mike Steinert, the Fort Worth school district’s assistant superintendent of student support services, told the Star-Telegram earlier this year that having teachers vaccinated would go a long way toward remedying the school staffing issues the district has faced due to quarantine requirements. More recent guidance from Tarrant County Public Health allows anyone who is exposed to the virus to skip the quarantine as long as it’s been more than two weeks but less than 90 days since they received their final vaccine dose and they don’t have symptoms of COVID-19. That means fully vaccinated teachers and school staff who are exposed to the virus wouldn’t automatically have to miss school to quarantine.
The move doesn’t signal a total return to normal for Texas schools. On Wednesday, the Texas Education Agency released guidance allowing school districts to continue offering both in-person and remote learning, as they’ve done since the beginning of the school year. Fort Worth district officials say they’ll continue offering both options. District officials also say they’ll continue to require masks in school facilities and on buses.
Little Rock schools keep safety protocols in place
Once vaccines were available, Poore said the Little Rock district fielded a survey of teachers and school staff members with questions about who wanted the vaccine and any underlying medical conditions that placed them at higher risk. The district used that survey to figure out how to allocate vaccine doses and prioritize employees who needed it soonest, he said.
Little Rock benefited from strong community connections that existed before the pandemic, Poore said. When school workers became eligible for the vaccine, schools coordinated with local pharmacies and hospitals to make sure teachers and staff members everywhere in the city would have access to the shot, he said. In cases where the district didn’t have access to the doses of vaccine it needed, Poore called local hospital officials, who quickly offered help, he said.
Even after most of its teachers are vaccinated, Little Rock schools plan to keep the safety protocols they’ve had in place since the beginning of the school year, said Margo Bushmiaer, the district’s health services coordinator. The district has had to make sure teachers and other staff members understand that they still need to wear masks and exercise caution at school even once they’re fully vaccinated, she said.
Vaccine is a welcome relief for teachers
Chanea Bond, an English teacher at Southwest High School in Fort Worth, has taught remotely since the beginning of the school year. Bond, who has severe asthma, will return to the classroom on March 22, when the district returns from spring break. Although she’s already been vaccinated, almost no one else in her department has been, Bond said. By Wednesday afternoon, about half the teachers in her department had signed up.
Bond has a 3-year-old daughter at home, and she worries she could come in contact with someone who has the virus at school and unknowingly pass it on to her daughter. Although she’s still anxious about the prospect of going back to school, the news that her colleagues will be eligible to receive the vaccine helps.
“It’s less terrifying going into a school building,” Bond said.
Bond doubts there will be major changes in the way teachers do their jobs this year, even after they’re fully vaccinated. Students make up the largest group in school buildings, and they aren’t eligible to receive the vaccine. That means teachers will have to continue to be careful about how they manage their classrooms and interact with students, she said.
Stacy Bogle, an English teacher at Arlington Heights High School, said she didn’t expect having teachers vaccinated would mean a complete return to normalcy at school. Many students play sports that could place them in contact with other students who are unknowingly infected, she said. And there’s little schools can do to prevent students from socializing in person after school and on weekends.
Still, Bogle said, the vaccine will provide protection for teachers and school staff who are at school in person each day. After months of stress and anxiety, it’s a welcome relief, she said.
“It’s nothing but good,” she said.