Lack of vaccinations: Wake NCAE expresses concerns ahead of return to in-person instruction

Following encouragement from state leaders during a press conference last week, the Wake County School Board voted 8-1 to resume in-person instruction on Feb. 15.

Wake County school board votes 8-1 to return to partial in-person learning Feb. 15

"We have desperately wanted to be back in the classroom with our students, and along the way have said that we want to do it as soon as safely possible," said Kristin Beller, the president of Wake NCAE.

They believe one step toward achieving that is having vaccinations for teachers.

"We really wanted to create stability. We knew that staffing was a major issue for stability. And that is why we felt that having teachers vaccinated before returning to school was such an important step because what that did is it would create stability in staffing and thus stability for our students," Beller said.

North Carolina is currently vaccinating healthcare workers, long-term care staff and residents, and people 65 and older. Teachers are part of Priority Group 3, frontline essential workers.

"For example, Ohio which is roughly the same size as North Carolina. (Ohio) has about 106,000 public school teachers, about the same as North Carolina. They have a plan to vaccinate every teacher, both doses, by the end of February and then they'll re-open schools for in-person instruction in the beginning of March. Now we could do that here if that was our priority. But right now, it's not and that's disappointing," said Keith Poston, the president of the non-profit WakeEd Partnership.

In Ohio, those guidelines apply to teachers in districts or schools that have committed to return to in-person or hybrid instruction by Mar. 1.

Starting Feb. 15, pre-K through third grade in Wake County Public Schools will have daily in-person instruction and fourth through twelfth graders will meet in-person in three week rotations. Special education regional programs K through 12 will also meet for daily in-person instruction.

"87% of educators, school staff who took our survey back in January, did not feel safe or confident that the protocols were in place would be able to withstand the amount of virus in our community," said Beller.

While new cases, positivity rate, and hospitalizations have improved over the past couple weeks, it comes following the worst two-month stretch of the pandemic in the state, as well as the confirmed presence of a more transmissible COVID-19 variant in North Carolina.

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"Not just teachers but other school staff as well have reached out to say that they are seriously considering resigning or maybe they're retiring early," said Beller.

Poston noted that maintaining consistent staffing levels could be also be an issue.

"We do have community spread. So a lot of teachers do find themselves exposed, and if you follow the CDC guidelines, you're supposed to isolate yourself and quarantine. So we run out of having enough substitutes to fill in for those teachers, even if they're not sick but they're trying to do the right thing to make sure they don't infect their co-workers or their students," said Poston.
Poston believes it's a potential problem that could be quickly exposed.

"We have all the students involved, and limited abilities to distance, limited ability to eat in the building safely, I think it's going to be some real pressure on principals and the school district to staff up to cover," said Poston, who added the school will already need to devote staff attention to taking temperatures and enhanced cleaning.

ABC11 reached out to NCDHHS to learn if they had any plans to move teachers up the prioritization groupings.

They released a statement:

"Our guidance to vaccine providers is to follow the state's prioritization framework, which is designed to save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19 by first protecting health care workers, people who are at the highest risk of being hospitalized or dying and those at high risk of exposure to COVID-19. Because vaccine supplies are limited, states need to vaccinate people in groups. At this time, health care workers with in-person patient contact (Group 1), long-term care staff and residents (Group 1) and anyone 65 and older (Group 2) are eligible to be vaccinated in North Carolina. Teachers under the age of 65 are included in Group 3, frontline essential workers.

The vaccine prioritization is designed to save lives and prevent spread while vaccine supplies are limited. North Carolina moves through vaccination phases by aligning to federal priorities while giving local health departments and hospitals the needed flexibility to move to the next priority group based on vaccine supply and demand.

More information about COVID-19 vaccine rollout in North Carolina can be found at https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines.
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