The COVID-19 vaccination rollout is off to a rocky start in Georgia, and teachers are anxious to claim their spots in line. In the meantime, many are back in schools, putting on a brave face for students and expressing alarm among friends.
Babette DeLaune is a retired K-12 educator. She retired two years ago, after 14 years teaching in Clayton County, and another 12 in Cherokee County. Following 33 years instructing children, she’s now a canine agility instructor. Many of her friends and clients are teachers, and the pandemic has been a frequent topic of conversation.
“They are just getting through it, because they have to have this job, they can’t survive without a job,” DeLaune said. “Some of them are single parents, some of them need two incomes to keep their house and everything. So they’re just like, ‘I’m grinning and bearing through it.’”
Some teachers have been reluctant to speak publicly about their concerns over inadequate safety measures and their desire for vaccination to avoid political backlash from their community and reprimanding from employers. There have been demonstrations across the state by teachers openly protesting the reopening of schools, but many fear professional repercussions too much to risk their livelihoods.
Governor Brian Kemp has resisted calls to issue a statewide mask mandate. As a result, many school districts haven’t required them either. Mask-wearing is only an “expected” measure for students in these districts, and in some schools it has become an expectation that is rarely adhered to.
“One of them shared with me that they had only three students the whole year out of over 100 students per day, the same kids who are wearing masks now have from the beginning,” DeLaune said. “And the rest of them don’t.”
School districts have implemented varying protocols in re-opening their schools, which has led to mixed results across the state and even among neighboring counties. Some teachers have tried to take precautionary measures for themselves, but were denied permission in the name of consistency.
“When this all happened, there were some teachers who asked their principals if they could have a piece of plexiglass that they would provide themselves to put around their desk, much like you have at the grocery store,” DeLaune said. “And they were told no, because not everyone would have it.”
On the other hand, many schools have installed transparent plastic barriers at fixed high-traffic locations like front offices and cafeteria cashier stations. These examples illustrate a lack of uniformity in strategy, which has led to confusion and community spread of the virus.
“With the death of the Cobb teachers and the Cherokee County School District bus driver, one would hope more precautions would be taken, but nothing,” DeLaune said. “The only reason they closed for remote learning for two weeks was because too many teachers and support staff were sick or quarantined — not to protect anyone.”
Teachers have grown frustrated with a lack of substantive response to these tragedies, and are losing hope that community and state leaders will place best practices over politics to protect them. Vaccination has become a last resort which might enable them to teach students face-to-face in a certifiably safe way.
“Everyone keeps talking about protecting the kids and I truly agree, but no one seems to mention the adults in the buildings,” DeLaune said. “We need vaccinations as soon as possible, then we can open schools and try to teach our kiddos and get back to the business of education.”
The entire country is now looking to the vaccine in order to get back to normalcy and combat the rapid spread of the virus. The amount of vaccine supply has been limited and uncertain, and the arrival of future shipments is unclear. In Georgia, teachers are set to be prioritized in the next phase of the vaccination eligibility, and education leaders across the state are already preparing for their place in line.
“I believe that the governor wants educators vaccinated as badly as superintendents do,” Rivera said.
Superintendent of Marietta City Schools Dr. Grant Rivera is part of a group of superintendents who plan to meet with the state Department of Education and the Department of Public Health to serve on a school staff vaccination task force. The group will help advise on best practices in hopes of efficiently expediting vaccines to teachers as soon as they become eligible. Rivera emphasized the importance of implementing cohesive measures across the state.
“I think one of the things that we’ve learned through this pandemic is the value of a coordinated effort, and how important it is to be able to not only pull together best practices and best ideas, but also how our collective collaboration limits confusion and inconsistency for families,” he said. “And I also think there’s power in the collective, as opposed to each of us trying to figure this out on our own.”
Marietta City Schools partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November, and was one of the first school districts in the country to help study school-based spread. Their collaboration with the CDC helped inform the most recent study supporting the notion that schools can be reopened safely, if proper safety measures are in place.
“From our perspective, we know that when kids are in schools, they’re more likely to be socially distant, they’re more likely to be wearing a mask, washing their hands and observing those safety protocols that we know cut down on transmission both in school and out of school,” Rivera said. “So I do philosophically agree the classrooms can be one of the safest places for children, because when they’re not with us they’re out in the community, not necessarily practicing those same precautions.”
Rivera also signed onto a letter with nearly a dozen other superintendents urging Kemp to move teachers and school staff into the 1A category for vaccine eligibility. The letter reads in part:
“We come to you as a united group to ask for your help in affirming that teachers are valued in Georgia … We hear each day from families who implore us to not return to a full virtual model; likewise, we hear each day from teachers who are scared about the threat of COVID-19 to them and their loved ones. At its heart, a school is a group of students and a group of educators; the magic that happens depends on both groups being together.”
Cody Hall, the governor’s director of communications, released a statement in response that began by stating, “This is a simple math problem the superintendents who signed this letter should certainly understand.”
Hall reiterated the governor’s position: “Georgia is not currently receiving enough vaccine supply to provide priority vaccination to over 400,000 teachers and school staff … as soon as Georgia begins to receive increased vaccine supply, teachers and school staff will absolutely be included in any expanded criteria.”
It is generally understood across the country that vaccination demand will greatly exceed supply for at least the immediate future. Georgia educators are eager to work alongside the state DOE and DPH to prioritize strategies that are backed by science and implement them uniformly across the state to mitigate virus spread.
“I believe that the governor wants educators vaccinated as badly as superintendents do,” Rivera said. “I also acknowledge the challenges that come with that, and I believe our letter stands on its own. We are partners in this work of public health, and not expecting them to carry it all.”
Undoubtedly, teachers and school staff carry much of the burden during this unprecedented crisis. Education leaders have emphasized the importance of hearing from teachers and school staff, validating their importance to communities. But in many districts, teachers continue to feel like their concerns are being ignored.
“They are feeling more and more like no one cares about them,” DeLaune said. “They are very overworked. It’s been a lot of extra hours, for no extra pay and a lot of extra risk. A lot of them feel like they’re just lucky they haven’t gotten it yet.”