Teachers and others who work with children will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination starting this week in both Guilford and Forsyth counties.
On Feb. 10, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that the state would be opening up vaccines to the next eligible group — Group 3 — which is comprised of frontline essential workers. Teachers and other childcare workers including bus drivers, custodial staff, therapists, medical staff and foodservice employees will be first in the group, while remaining essential workers will be eligible starting March 10.
In Guilford, about 3,000 Guilford County Schools employees will be vaccinated Thursday evening through Saturday evening. The process, according to the district’s press release, will be repeated the following week. Prioritization for school and childcare employees in Guilford County is as follows: those who work with exceptional children, many of whom can’t mask properly; workers aged 51-64, then workers aged 36 to 50; and finally, those aged 18-35. The county currently has more than 4,500 teachers and nearly 10,000 employees. Guilford County Public Health Director Dr. Iulia Vann said during a recent county commission meeting that there are an estimated 15,000 individuals within the target population for both private and public schools, as well as childcare workers. The county’s goal is to vaccinate 80 percent of those individuals, Vann said.
“I’m excited to be able to get the vaccine,” said Shana Richards, a school counselor at Guilford eLearning University Prep, a 6-8 grades virtual school. “I signed up to receive it on Thursday.”
Richards, who has mostly been working from home, said that she’s still eager to get the vaccine because it will give her peace of mind for when she conducts home visits to check on students.
“Because we want to make sure that our students are engaging with us and if they’re not, and we can’t get in touch with their parents, we do go on home visits,” Richards said. “We go to make sure everything is okay and see if they need anything to connect with our teachers.”
As the sole counselor at the middle grades virtual school, which serves 1,600 students across the district, Richard is likely the busiest counselor in the county.
“I believe we are the largest middle school in Guilford County,” Richards said. “I can definitely say that the work has been constant. It has been very busy. In a virtual world, we have students who need some structure but are also learning from home and many of them feel isolated. We have the challenge of how to meet our students’ social and emotional needs.”
Richards, who is a member of the Guilford County Association of Educators, said that the rift between teachers and parents on how and when to reopen schools is misleading.
“There’s been a misconception that teachers don’t want schools to be open,” she said. “That’s totally untrue. Teachers want to be back in the classroom safely with their students. Vaccines will make them feel comfortable to receive their kids back and educate them.”
In the first few weeks since taking office, President Joe Biden announced his plan to reopen schools by his 100th day in office. The move came at a time when conversations around the country were taking place on how and when to bring students back to the classroom. Since his declaration, Biden has narrowed his calls for reopening, causing some confusion amongst state officials. Still, the decision to reopen schools isn’t up to the federal government. Instead, that power lies at the local level with county school boards, many of which continue to collaborate closely with their county health departments to make those decisions.
In Guilford County, Vann said that during the next two weeks all of the vaccines that the county health department receives will be reserved for educators. Members of the general public who are currently eligible to get the vaccine as part of Groups 1 or 2 — health care workers and those aged 65 and up — may still do so through area hospitals such as Cone Health.
“We, the county, are going to focus our efforts for the next two weeks on educators,” Vann said. Based on the projected doses, Vann said that they should be able to vaccinate 12,000 educators in about two-and-a-half weeks.
Educators and childcare-center staff should be receiving direct links to set up appointments this week; employees should be able to pick a location and time that works for them.
Forsyth County announced they will start vaccinating teachers on Wednesday. Currently, the county has 9,336 employees and 100 contractors; so far, 800 school employees have already been vaccinated under Groups 1 and 2.
“We are eager to vaccinate school system employees and childcare workers,” Dr. Pam Oliver, the executive vice president and president of Novant Health’s physician network, said in a public statement. “Protecting caregivers, educators and school employees is a crucial step in our COVID-19 recovery efforts. Although we continue to face supply challenges, our coordinated vaccination efforts will help ensure that all eligible groups have access to appointments.”
Forsyth County officials did not respond to email requests asking how many doses will be allocated to educational and childcare staff. In a press release, the public health department said that the total number of available appointments remains dependent on vaccine allocation and that appointments will be made on a weekly basis.
Shana Richards said that she’s scheduled for Thursday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“My whole family is really excited that I’m getting the vaccine,” Richards said. “We have all been working from home during the pandemic and I’m the only one that has to leave the house and be put at risk at work.”
Todd Warren, president of the Guilford County Association of Educators, said that he’s been hearing from members that they are excited that they are able to get the vaccine soon.
“They are thrilled that they can have another added layer of safety,” Warren said. “There’s lots of things that they already do, like masking and distancing in schools, but this just helps give people a peace of mind that they have an extra layer of protection.”
The opening up of vaccines to teachers is timely given that the CDC published a new study on Monday that found that teachers, not students, were the probable source of school-related COVID-19 outbreaks in a Georgia district during the months of December and January. The report stated that “educators might play a central role in in-school transmission networks” and that “preventing SARS-CoV-2 infections through multifaceted school mitigation measures and COVID-19 vaccination of educators is a critical component of preventing in-school transmission.”
The study went on to state that while the COVID-19 vaccine is not currently a CDC requirement for reopening schools, vaccinating teachers can “protect educators at risk for severe COVID-19-associated illness, potentially reduce in-school SARS-CoV-2 transmission, and minimize interruptions to in-person learning, all of which have important implications for educational equity and community health.”
In Guilford County, there are currently 36 active employee COVID-19 cases and 29 active student cases according to the school district’s online dashboard. In Forsyth County, there are currently 22 employee cases and 61 student cases.
“Getting the vaccine is the right thing to do at this time so we can return to some semblance of normalcy for students who are at home by themselves,” Richards said. “I’m excited to be able to use my platform to encourage other people to get the vaccine too.”