Facing a shortage of substitute teachers and expectations of returning to fully in-person learning this spring, the Taconic & Green Regional School District Board is appealing to state officials to prioritize teachers to receive COVID-19 vaccines.
The board recently wrote a letter, dated Feb. 8, addressed to Secretary of Education Daniel French and Commissioner of Health Mark Levine.
“With great respect for the work you and Gov. (Phil) Scott have done in the setting of a once-in-a-century pandemic, (we) would like to make an appeal to you and the Governor: as more vaccine supply becomes available in Vermont, please (prioritize) teachers for SARS-CoV2 vaccination so that we can meet the Governor’s goal of everyone returning to in-person education in April.”
The idea for the letter arose during the board’s Feb. 2 meeting, after Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union Superintendent Randi Lowe said that the district is “facing really, really significant challenges with staffing right now at every one of our T&G schools.”
Although teachers may be able to continue teaching remotely while in quarantine, Lowe explained, substitutes are still needed to supervise students at school in physical classrooms.
“It’s getting more and more difficult” to avoid having to close classrooms, Lowe said. “With the level of spread in the community and people being close contacts, we have increasing numbers of people who need to quarantine and there just aren’t enough bodies to cover it.”
Board member Richard Dale introduced the idea of requesting the prioritization of teachers in the vaccination queue.
The board eventually approved a motion to send letters on the matter to the state officials as well as to the community.
An emailed inquiry sent to the Department of Health on Tuesday morning regarding the T&G letter didn’t receive an immediate response.
“We understand that the vaccine supply is quite limited at this point,” the letter to French and Levine states. “We understand and agree with the governor’s priority to prevent deaths and severe illnesses by beginning the vaccination campaign with those most at risk.”
But the governor’s stated aim for a full return to in-person learning by April represents a “competing concern,” the board wrote. “If that is going to be a realistic goal, many if not all of our educators and other school staff will have to begin vaccination by early March to have it complete by April.”
People 75 years of age and older are currently eligible to receive the vaccine, according to a state health department webpage. Gov. Scott said during a press briefing on Tuesday that it’s expected that the next age band — people 70 years of age and older — will begin registering for vaccination by the end of the month.
After the 70-and-up contingent, people 65 years and older will be the next to receive vaccines. Once “those groups have been vaccinated, Vermonters with specific chronic conditions will follow,” according to the state webpage.
Asked on Tuesday during the press briefing about the possibility of prioritizing vaccinations for a different tranche of workers, grocery-store employees, Gov. Scott gave no indication that he was inclined to stray from the approach outlined above but said the state is contemplating which cohorts might receive vaccinations after those with certain chronic conditions receive them.
“Every area, every sector — you’d be amazed at how many people lobby us for wanting to be next,” Scott said. “Because, in some respects, we’re all essential, so it gets more complicated as we move forward.”
In its letter to French and Levine, the T&G board argues that teacher prioritization “would benefit our students, whose educational and social development have been (unavoidably) impacted by the pandemic,” as well as parents.
The letter also identifies morale as an issue.
“Some community members have wrongly suggested that the pandemic has given teachers something akin to a part-time job,” the board wrote. “The subject of the ‘failure’ of our schools to deliver on certain expectations is another favorite in the media and political circles. Vaccine protocols add to that narrative and leave school boards with real concerns about the future availability of teachers for our districts.”
The board goes on to suggest that if vaccines are not available in sufficient quantities to immunize all teachers, the state could still start with “counties most affected by COVID illnesses.” Bennington and Rutland counties — where four of the five schools operated by the district are located — saw a combined 76 percent increase in new COVID-19 infections from Jan. 13 to Feb. 7, according to the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation’s latest modeling presentation. During the same time frame, the rest of the state saw a 39 percent decrease in infections.
The school board represents nine towns: Danby, Dorset, Landgrove, Londonderry, Manchester, Mount Tabor, Peru, Sunderland and Weston. Prior to board members voting on sending the letter, Lowe told them that such outreach “goes a tremendously long way with your T&G teachers to feel cared for and heard and respected and valued.”
It’s not clear to what extent vaccinating all teachers would alleviate the substitute-teacher crunch. After one board member asked if teachers, post-vaccination, would still need to quarantine if exposed to COVID-19, Lowe said guidance from the health department has not changed on that front.
Board member Leigh LoPresti, who is a physician, said vaccinating teachers would “decrease the quarantine need somewhat, but it isn’t going to change the rules if you’re exposed.”
In a separate, open letter addressed to “Fellow Vermonters and State Policymakers,” the board warns that if by spring “our teachers are not vaccinated and if they do not feel collectively safe, then there will be no full in-person instruction at Taconic & Green schools.”
“In short, it is the responsibility of this board to prevent ‘teacher burnout’ and to protect the psyche and well-being of our employees so we can provide for the long-term viability of our school system and local economy,” the board wrote in the open letter.