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“Like an answered prayer”: Colorado educators celebrate receiving coronavirus vaccine after disruptive school year

COVIDCheck Colorado, which created a coronavirus testing network last year, is helping accelerate vaccinations for 30,000 Colorado educators

Jessi Puga, a nurse at Pine Ridge Elementary School, receives the coronavirus vaccine on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, at Parker Adventist Hospital. (Handout)
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Jessie Massey once fainted when faced with the idea of getting jabbed with a needle, but on Friday, as the school principal prepared to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, her excitement just about outweighed her nerves.

“I think I’m just so grateful to be here and to be part of this with Mapleton that I just had to put that aside and try not to focus on it,” said Massey, principal of Trailside Academy in Adams County just outside Denver.

Massey, 33, is one of the first of about 30,000 educators being vaccinated over the next six weeks as part of a broad effort to reopen schools and keep them open safely, with behind-the-scenes help from COVIDCheck Colorado, which introduced a COVID-19 testing network to the state in July

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Through partnerships with HCA HealthONE and Centura Health, COVIDCheck Colorado has converted its testing platform into one that can schedule vaccine appointments for teachers from 27 school districts. The initiative is positioned to connect educators with an anticipated 60,000 doses of the vaccine so that each educator can receive the two required shots, said Mike Johnston, president and CEO of Gary Community Investment Company. 

COVIDCheck Colorado, developed by GCI and The Piton Foundation, is also expanding three of its testing sites to double as vaccination sites. Those will be located at Mountain Range High School in Westminster, EchoPark Stadium in Parker and Cherry Creek High School’s Stutler Bowl Stadium. The three locations will begin offering vaccinations next week. District and school employees must make an appointment.

COVIDCheck Colorado began preparing to help launch a multi-district vaccination movement in response to Gov. Jared Polis’ decision to bump teachers closer to the front of the inoculation line. Monday was the first day that teachers and child care workers were eligible to get vaccinated

In partnering with Colorado health care systems and school districts, COVIDCheck Colorado is streamlining the vaccination process for teachers so they don’t have to wonder exactly when or where they can get innoculated.

“I think what we saw in the early stages of the vaccine is it can be complicated for any individual to find out how to access a dose from a specific hospital or a specific provider,” Johnston said.

And it could be particularly complicated for a few dozen different districts all working with different providers. Now, educators from those districts can turn to one platform to schedule an appointment at a location and time when doses are guaranteed to be available. One of the positive consequences: Teachers can get back into classrooms with their kids without having to worry as much about safety.

“All the educators we’ve talked to have been desperate for the vaccine,” Johnston said. “They are anxious to get back to school if they’re not there now and they want to be in person and they want to be safe.”

North Suburban Medical Center staff administer COVID-19 vaccines on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Many of the people who received vaccines are educators from Mapleton Public Schools. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Along with vaccinating Mapleton educators with help from HCA HealthONE, COVIDCheck Colorado and Centura Health are teaming up to vaccinate district staff from:

  • Adams 12 Five Star Schools
  • Adams County School District 14
  • Agate School District No. 300
  • Aurora Public Schools
  • Big Sandy Schools 100J
  • Boulder Valley School District
  • Byers School District
  • Cherry Creek School District
  • Colorado Springs School District 11
  • Cotopaxi School District RE-3
  • Douglas County School District
  • Elizabeth School District
  • Englewood Public School District
  • Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8
  • Haxtun Re2J
  • Holyoke School District RE-1J
  • Jeffco Public Schools
  • Kiowa School District C-2
  • Lewis-Palmer School District 38
  • Littleton Public Schools
  • Montrose County School District RE-1J
  • Pueblo School District 60
  • Revere School District 
  • St. Vrain Valley School District
  • Westminster Public Schools
  • Widefield School District 3

Mapleton’s staff are the first group of educators that HCA HealthONE has vaccinated, and Centura Health is also inviting district staff to receive the vaccine. The other 26 districts benefiting from the mass vaccination effort will receive vaccines from Centura Health.

Eleven of those districts have relied on COVIDCheck Colorado for consistent coronavirus testing in the last year, said Chyrise Harris, vice president of communications for GCI.

Johnston, who was determined to support a vaccine rollout ever since launching COVIDCheck Colorado, is optimistic that educators from these districts who want to be vaccinated will have the opportunity within the next six weeks. It depends on how many doses Colorado receives from the federal government and where those doses are shipped.

For educators who have been on the front lines still trying to engage their students, the prospect of the vaccine actually arriving “feels like an answered prayer,” Johnston said.

For one teacher, the vaccine is like “bubble wrap”

On Friday, Mapleton Public Schools staff members, including teachers and administrators, crowded into an atrium at North Suburban Medical Center in Thornton for their first round of the Pfizer vaccine. Medical staff sped through each vaccination within minutes and directed educators to observation rooms, where they had to wait up to a half hour to ensure they didn’t have an adverse reaction. 

The medical center had the capacity to inoculate 525 educators on Friday. Another 210 can get their first vaccine dose next Friday. Those who get their first dose will automatically be scheduled to receive their second dose on March 5 or March 12, depending on which day they were given their first dose, Harris said.

Mapleton Public Schools, which has about 6,800 students, reopened its classrooms to in-person learning at the start of the school year. It has also offered families a remote-only schooling option. Like many Colorado school districts, some of Mapleton’s classes and cohorts have had to pivot to remote learning temporarily for the sake of quarantining after exposures to the virus, Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio said.

Veronica Wolff, a certified medical assistant for North Suburban Medical Center, puts a bandaid on Jessie Massey, principal of Trailside Academy, after vaccinating her against COVID-19 on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Massey is part of a wave of 30,000 educators receiving the vaccine over the next six weeks. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

The superintendent was also among those who received their first vaccine dose on Friday. She said she felt the light at the end of the tunnel was finally in sight.

“All these things that we were hoping for are actually happening,” Ciancio said in a phone interview on Thursday.

It’s also the beginning of a long-awaited peace of mind for educators. The vaccinations will go a long way toward easing pandemic-fueled fears among teachers, Ciancio said. Still, the district will continue to keep its other health and safety protocols to keep students safe until all students be vaccinated, the district leader said. Those include relying on new filtering systems, maintaining social distance and enforcing mask wearing.

Ciancio also noted that having a mass of vaccinated teachers will minimize disruptions the rest of the school year. Should a vaccinated teacher be exposed to a student who tests positive for COVID-19, she said, they will be able to continue teaching in their classroom. Any students with the virus, however, will have to move to remote learning.

Dr. Melissa Miller, director of pharmacy at North Suburban Medical Center, described the vaccine as an extra shield for educators.

“This isn’t going to keep them from getting exposed,” Miller said, “but it is going to give them a layer of protection from that exposure that they didn’t have before the vaccine was available.”

For Melanie Newton, a second grade teacher at York International in Thornton, getting the vaccine is like “bubble wrap,” guarding her against the virus.

Newton, 49, feared for her health and safety heading into the school year after struggling throughout the summer to decide whether to apply to teach online, take a leave of absence or return to in-person instruction. She opted to step back into the classroom.

“For me, it was the right thing to do,” said Newton, who received her first dose on Friday. “After experiencing teaching online at the end of last year, I didn’t feel like it was the best choice for me to stay online for a whole year.”

Getting vaccinated eases her concerns about going into the classroom. Massey, the Trailside Academy principal, is flooded with the same sense of relief. She often interacts with about 450 people throughout the day at school. Now, she feels more comfortable spending more time with students and in the classroom. She looks at the prioritization of teachers in the vaccine line as an acknowledgement of their work and the sacrifices they’ve made in the past year, noting it’s a way to give back to them after they have given so much to their own communities.

Mapleton Public Schools staff was vaccinated at the North Suburban Medical Center in Thornton on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, as part of a broad effort to inoculate 30,000 Colorado teachers by the end of March. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Neither Newton, Massey nor Robert Rodewald, an Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructor at Skyview Campus in Thornton, had second thoughts about getting vaccinated. Rodewald served 28 years in the military and is used to getting vaccinated for diseases. He’s already been vaccinated for a long list of diseases — including anthrax twice — and a new vaccination doesn’t scare him.

He’s had to connect with his students over a computer screen all year to avoid mixing different cohorts and he’s eager for the day he can see them face to face. He’s less concerned about contracting COVID-19 than he is about the possibility of infecting someone else, particularly  high-risk individuals.

“I’m doing it for the greater good,” Rodewald, 51, said Friday after his first shot.

Johnston, of GCI, sees the large-scale teacher vaccination effort as the starting point for rebuilding the state’s education system.

“We’ve been doing the best we can to hold things together under incredibly difficult circumstances,” said Johnston, formerly a principal in the Mapleton district, “and this represents our chance as a state to really begin to build for the future and to be able to get our kids back connected to each other and to their schools.”

Plus, as the vaccinations help reopen classrooms and keep them open safely, students will finally have that first day of school experience many of them were deprived of last fall. One of Johnston’s own sons, who attends Denver Public Schools, met his teacher and classmates in person for the first time last week — a day complete with the back-to-school jitters that typically come during the start of the year.

“For many kids,” Johnston said, “that wonder of the first day of the school year is suddenly waiting ahead of them.”

CORRECTION: This file was updated at 10:31 a.m. on Feb. 13, 2021, to correct inaccurate information about instructor Robert Rodewald. He has not had anthrax twice but has been vaccinated for the disease twice.

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