Gov. Wolf: Teachers, school staff move to front of line for Johnson & Johnson covid vaccine

Megan Guza And Teghan Simonton, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·6 min read

Mar. 3—Most teachers across Pennsylvania could be vaccinated and ready to return to classrooms by the end of March, state officials said Wednesday as they announced that educators and school staff will receive priority for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Gov. Tom Wolf said giving educators the first shot at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is "an important step to getting students back into the classroom safely."

The use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the first single-dose shot to receive emergency authorization, means there isn't the weeks-long waiting period for immunity to take effect, Wolf said.

"To the extent we're moving this out immediately," he said of the plan for educators, "we should have teachers begin to go back to work by the end of the month."

In a news release, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit said it will coordinate with the Pennsylvania National Guard and AMI Expeditionary Healthcare, LLC, to oversee site operations, including scheduling and vaccine administration. Vaccinations are expected to begin as soon as March 10. Scheduling information will be communicated directly to eligible individuals, the release said.

Most districts in the region have already offered some degree of in-person learning or had already made plans to return to the classroom before the governor's announcement. But the initiative, school leaders say, is one that is appreciated and affirms the important role of teachers and school staff in a return to normal life.

"It doesn't change any plans — just helps solidify that students coming back into the buildings, along with staff, will be safer," said James Harris, superintendent of Woodland Hills School District.

Woodland Hills has been fully remote this year, but had already made tentative plans to move into a hybrid model by the end of March. The district will be presenting the plan to the school board March 10. If that plan is approved by the board, vaccine availability for teachers will only "expedite" the process and make teachers and staff more comfortable, Harris said.

Tim Scott, superintendent of Kiski Area School District, said the initiative is a step in the right direction, though questions still remain about the logistics of scheduling vaccines, which will be handled through 28 intermediate units throughout the state. Scott said he is still working out whether or not school days will need to be canceled so staff can get inoculated, and it's still unclear how quickly teachers and staff in high schools — which generally have higher rates of infection — can expect to receive their first dose.

"I will feel relief," Scott said. "Right now I'm just getting this and still getting information. ... I'm pleased there's a plan to get vaccines for our people working with kids every day."

Scott said the widespread inoculation of teachers probably won't change the district's instructional model this year. The district has offered four days of in-person learning with one day of virtual learning since November. He said Kiski Area will likely stick with this plan for the rest of the year, to ensure everyone stays connected with remote procedures during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

Gennaro Piraino, superintendent of Franklin Regional schools, expressed concern with the delay inoculating secondary education teachers — though he said he understands elementary students have been most impacted by learning loss, and pose the greatest challenge with being left alone while parents try to do their own work. Piraino doesn't think there should be any distinction between which teachers and staff should get the vaccine first.

"One of the things we hear from the state government all the time is to 'follow the science,' " he said. "When you look at the science of this virus, secondary students are more likely to spread the virus."

Piraino noted the initiative doesn't solve everything — districts still have safety guidelines including physical distancing restrictions that might prevent them from reopening fully. And though he's glad educators are now a priority, he said there is still a "free for all" with districts competing to get their staff access.

"This is probably the best that we've seen in terms of handling of the pandemic," he said. "However, it's still not great."

Wolf said rough estimates indicate about 200,000 people will be included in the initiative, which includes not just teachers but aides, bus drivers, administrators and more. That does not account for educators who fell into the original 1A category or those who might decline the vaccine.

"We need them to get back to school, and if you've been offered a vaccine, you ought to be willing to go back to school," he said.

Wolf said that among educators, those who work with pre-K and elementary students, special education students, students learning English as a second language, and other support staff will receive priority.

He said prioritizing teachers for the first shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will not set back efforts to vaccinate others in phase 1A.

Between the Department of Health and pharmacies that are part of the federal partnership, the state will receive a total of about 124,000 doses this week, Wolf said.

Teachers, along with a slew of other groups considered essential workers, were slated for vaccination in phase 1B, though health officials have said there is no timetable for moving to the next vaccination phase.

Under its original definition, more than 4 million Pennsylvanians fall into the 1A category, meaning the state would need more than 9 million doses of the two-dose vaccines to reach everyone. So far the state has administered around 2.5 million doses. Around 762,000 residents are fully vaccinated.

Wolf's announcement came a week after Pittsburgh Public Schools announced plans to bring students back to classrooms based on need, beginning April 6.

"The vaccinations of our teachers and school staff will add an additional layer to the mitigation strategies we have in place to welcome students back for hybrid learning," Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said in a statement.

Pittsburgh schools had previously delayed in-person learning, hoping to increase the chance teachers and staff could receive the vaccine. Teachers unions nationwide have pushed for educators to be higher on the vaccine priority list, with some advocating for full virtual learning until their members could be at least partially inoculated. Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, thanked Wolf for the new initiative.

"The additional layer of protection that full vaccination will provide will make a meaningful and measurable difference in the lives of our educators, school staff, students and school communities," she said in a statement.

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