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Colorado’s vaccine schedule won’t salvage a school year upended by coronavirus

By the time teachers are vaccinated, schools will be headed to summer break. Districts are calling for teachers to move to the top of Phase 2 inoculations.

Harrison School District 2 special education teacher Vanissa Lopez spaces desks farther apart in her classroom at Centennial Elementary School in Colorado Springs on Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in preparation for a return to in-person learning in the fall. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The coronavirus vaccine that began arriving in Colorado this month will have zero direct effect on this year’s school year, according to current state plans for its rollout.

The first doses of the coveted vaccine are going to nurses and doctors who have been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. Nursing home residents and the staff who care for them are also getting the highest priority. 

And then come firefighters and police officers, as well as people who work in home health, hospice care and dental offices.

The best-case scenario for vaccinating Colorado teachers against the virus that has disrupted education since last spring looks like this:

Teachers get their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine in March. Their second round of the two-dose inoculation comes three to four weeks later, near the end of April. In early May, vaccinated teachers develop immunity to COVID-19. And then a couple of weeks later, school is out for the summer. 

Teachers — along with a long list of others including grocery store workers, food manufacturers and people 65 and older — are in Phase 2 of the vaccination plan, which according to the best estimate by public health officials, is likely to begin some time in March. Coloradans with health issues, including heart and lung disease or diabetes, can also get vaccinated in Phase 2. 

Who has priority within that long, second-tier list is unclear. The state’s plan doesn’t specify whether older Coloradans or essential food industry workers are ahead of teachers, for example. It’s also unknown how long it will take for Colorado to receive enough doses to vaccinate everyone who fits the Phase 2 criteria.

A health care worker received Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The vague plan, along with frustrated parents, students and school officials who are trying to salvage the school year, has led to calls for moving teachers up the priority list. 

The final few weeks of the first semester, relegated to online-only in many districts when Colorado’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations peaked just before Thanksgiving, were a slog. Students who looked forward to returning in January were instead notified that remote learning would last, in some districts, for two more months.

Some of the largest districts in the state, including Douglas County, Jefferson County, Adams 12 Five Star Schools and Denver Public Schools, broke the unwelcome news as they closed for the holidays that high school students won’t return to in-person classes until late January or even late February. In the same bad-news letters, superintendents urged parents to express their disappointment to Gov. Jared Polis. 

Encourage the governor to “prioritize school district employees to receive a vaccine after health care workers, first responders and those who are immunocompromised,” said an email to parents from the administration at Jefferson County Schools. 

Douglas County interim superintendent Corey Wise used almost those exact words, saying educators should come after the same three groups. A big portion of the problem in keeping schools open is not that teachers are getting sick with coronavirus — it’s that they’re getting quarantined so often that the district’s substitute-teacher resources are tapped. 

“Health experts and elected officials fail to address the real reason schools are not open: schools do not have enough staff members available,” Wise wrote, listing not just teachers, but bus drivers, substitute teachers and food service staff. 

The governor has been asked repeatedly in the past two weeks about whether teachers are in the right place on the vaccine priority list. They are prioritized, he insists. 

It doesn’t make sense to move teachers into Phase 1 of inoculations, he said. “The first goal of the vaccine is to save lives,” Polis said in a recent news conference. “The second goal: end the pandemic.” 

To best save lives, Polis said the state needs to focus on those with the highest risk of death, including nursing home residents. A person who is 86 is about 100 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than a person who is 26, the governor said. 

“You have to look at the science and the data around the fatality rate for this virus,” he said. “It’s not two or three or four times more fatal, it’s 100 times more fatal. It’s absolutely critical that we protect those that have a fatality rate that is 100 times higher than you, than me, than a teacher.” 

Polis acknowledged the vaccine “is unlikely to affect the classroom practices for this coming semester.” 

Educators brace for more months of school disruptions 

The Colorado Education Association wants the state to move teachers toward the top in Phase 2. President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in most Colorado communities, the school district is the largest employer, meaning that the date educators get vaccinated will have a huge impact on when much of the town can get back to normal.

She said CEA hopes that the vaccine is available to most of Colorado’s educators by early spring at the latest. The sooner teachers can be vaccinated, the better, she said. “We truly believe the vaccine is a component that is needed and necessary to prioritize in-person learning.”

Mark Sass, Teach Plus executive director for Colorado and a part-time social studies teacher at Legacy High School in Broomfield, has wrestled with exactly where teachers fit among all those categorized in Phase 2. Many individuals besides teachers in that stage of vaccine distribution are essential employees who continue to do their jobs onsite — including postal workers and grocery store clerks.

Teachers have continued their jobs, but in many cases have been working remotely.

But with students’ social-emotional health and academic achievement on the line, schools need to return to in-person instruction, Sass said. If the vaccine will accelerate that move back to classrooms, he’s all for it.

The vaccine has renewed teachers’ sense of hope, Sass said. He won’t hesitate to take the shot.

Adam Hartman, assistant superintendent of Cañon City School District, is also eager to step in line for the vaccine, which he believes can provide teachers a peace of mind they’ve been living without this school year. Teachers will feel better if they have a way to go to work and maintain “a greater level of safety and security,” Hartman said.

“I am unequivocally hopeful that teachers will embrace it,” he said.

Still, there is concern that teachers of color will be less likely to get vaccinated. Jaclyn Ballesteros, who is Hispanic and a lead teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary School in Denver, said she has reservations about getting the vaccine in light of how much science and medicine have harmed communities of color in the past, in part through experimentation. 

Patsy Burenheide teaches her third graders remotely from her makeshift home office in Johnstown on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Burenheide was a reading specialist at Letford Elementary School but switched to teaching third grade this year so she could work remotely all year. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

“There definitely are a lot of ways that science has been very unfair to communities of color,” Ballesteros said.

But she also works in a community of color, and she knows that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected its families. Ballesteros said skipping vaccination would only exacerbate the inequities in her community, where families are more susceptible to the risks of the pandemic and the social and economic consequences it’s created.

As educators end one semester and prepare for another, Hartman, the Cañon City administrator, has picked up on a sense of optimism within the teaching corps.

“I think that this has been really hard,” he said. “We are still in the tunnel, but there appears to be some light at the end of it.”

But the administrator recognizes that it could be several more months before life inside schools resembles what it was before the pandemic. Even if all teachers in the state could be vaccinated tomorrow, there still would be some need for quarantines until the vaccine reached everyone else connected to school communities.

Baca-Oehlert, of CEA, also anticipates more disruption as the vaccine rollout is in progress. 

The distribution timeline, she said, will require communities to be vigilant about all the other necessary measures that enable in-person schooling, including personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, staffing resources and resources to distance students and staff.

College campuses, too, are facing more weeks if not months of online coursework as 2021 begins. College students living in dorms were removed from the state’s priority list under the latest version of the vaccination plan, and it’s unclear whether college professors and other on-campus workers are included within Phase 2. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials said they are working on a new, more complete version of the vaccine plan.

The University of Colorado Boulder will kick off second semester with remote courses on Jan. 14, with a tentative plan to return to in-person learning on Feb. 15. At the University of Northern Colorado, campus leaders plan to launch classes on Jan. 11, and faculty will decide how to facilitate their courses — remotely, through a hybrid approach or in person — similarly to the way classes operated after Thanksgiving break, university spokeswoman Katie Corder said.

State could break Phase 2 vaccine into priority subgroups

State public health officials, in an interview with The Colorado Sun, said there is no plan to adjust teachers’ place in the vaccine priority list. But that doesn’t mean they won’t revisit that conversation as spring nears and Colorado knows more about how many doses of the vaccine it will receive. 

Right now, Phase 2 is made up of a massive group of people in one category, and public health officials could break that down into subgroups, said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

“I think after we start to get these initial vaccine doses delivered on a regular cadence and we understand what the supply looks like that will really determine our need for subgroups in Phase 2,” she said. “We will be looking at that, but it will be a few weeks down the road.”

There are no plans to put teachers ahead of first responders or any other group in the first phase of the vaccine. 

“Phase 1 is really about trying to end this crisis, particularly as it involves the health care system,” Hunsaker Ryan said. “That’s both from a medical personnel perspective and also from those most likely to need a hospital bed. That’s really where Phase 1 is focused and needs to be focused.

The first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine delivered to Denver Health on Dec. 16, 2020, arrived in vials containing five doses. (Handout)

“But another goal, certainly, of the administration and of all of us is to have in-person learning of children. That’s a high priority. We all think that’s very important.”

A task force created by the governor’s office released a plan this month aimed at helping schools return to the classroom next semester. The plan loosens quarantine requirements, mainly allowing teachers or students with a potential exposure to return to school after seven days with a negative COVID-19 test. It also contains guidelines for on-campus rapid testing for the virus and ventilation of classrooms.

The plan provides “layered protections” against spread of the virus, state public health officials said. What’s not part of next semester’s return-to-school plan: teacher vaccinations. The task force report does, however, call for getting the vaccine to teachers “as soon as possible” and educating school communities about vaccine safety. 

Ideally, the state would have enough of the vaccine that public health officials won’t have to make harsh decisions about which residents — teachers or grocery store workers or Coloradans with diabetes — should step ahead in line. 

But for now, Colorado is dependent on the vaccine supply chain, said Brig. Gen. Scott Sherman of the Colorado National Guard, who is leading Colorado’s vaccine distribution task force. “That’s what we’re relying on and we don’t have that much information right now,” he said. 

Sass, of Legacy High School, has his focus on getting through January as his students start the second term remotely. 

Because schools and teachers don’t know when their turn for the vaccine will come, it’s hard to plan out far in advance, Sass said. He hopes that students can resume in-person instruction by spring break, but schools and educators need clear plans and a better understanding of timing with the vaccine.

“The one thing teachers like is clarity and certainty in the future,” Sass said, “and it is just not certain right now.”

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