Superintendents from Texas, Florida, Washington, North Carolina and other states are pushing for an organized plan to vaccinate the country’s teachers and school staff more quickly, in order to allow schools to open for more in-person learning.
“We are all in a race against time,” said Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, an advocacy group for state and local school districts, during a Zoom press conference on Wednesday.
Magee emphasized the need to release doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to local officials who can work directly with school districts to speed up the vaccination process.
“We have a supply problem,” Magee said. “The demand is obvious, and given the proper support from federal and state governments, our members are prepared to play a pivotal role in protecting our teachers and children.”
Robert Runcie, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools in Florida, talked about his concern regarding the academic and social impact a lack of in-person learning is having on children.
“We have far too many students who are struggling and I’m very concerned that we could lose a whole generation of kids if we don’t act quickly,” Runcie said.
Since Broward County schools reopened for some in-person learning October 9, about 30% of the district’s students have opted for face-to-face instruction, according to Runcie.
But the number of failing grades and absences is skyrocketing.
During the first marking period of the 2020-21 school year, the number of students in Broward County receiving one or more failing grades is 11%, up from 4% during the first marking period a year ago, officials said. The number of students who have missed 15 or more days of school is currently 8,200, up from 1,700 at this point a year ago.
“It is absolutely imperative that we open our schools. We have demonstrated that we can do that safely,” said Runcie.
At a smaller district in Washington state, Superintendent Susan Enfield of Highline Public Schools says she doesn’t have a good answer for her staff about vaccines because of what she calls a lack of guidance from the state.
“We know that making [vaccines] available to our staff will significantly accelerate our ability to bring students back into buildings,” Enfield said.
Highline Public Schools has so far only brought back special needs students for in-person learning — about 150 students out of 17,000 in the district. Enfield says they have a March 1 target date to bring elementary students back for in-person learning.
School leaders are also dealing with vaccine hesitancy among teachers, but hope that the incoming administration will be able to help calm fears with clear and consistent messaging.
President-elect Joe Biden has said bringing back K-8 students for in-person school is a top priority for the first 100 days of his administration.
In Tennessee, just 43% of the workforce in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System is showing interest in getting vaccinated, according to Director of Schools Millard House.
Runcie said he’d be happy to roll up his sleeve and set an example for any teachers or staff who have concerns about the vaccine.
“I’ll go and be the first one along with our teachers, side by side,” Runcie said.