Vaccinating teachers gets Pa. schools ‘one step closer to what is normal’

"It is a weirdly happy place for getting a big needle stuck in your arm. I’m just absolutely shocked at how happy everybody is.”

  • Jan Murphy/PennLive

(Harrisburg) — The emotion inside the Capital Area Intermediate Unit headquarters on Thursday from school employees after receiving their COVID-19 vaccination could rival an amusement park, said its executive director Andria Saia.

“Disney has nothing on a COVID vaccination event,” she said. “People are so happy and so relieved. Really it is a weirdly happy place for getting a big needle stuck in your arm. I’m just absolutely shocked at how happy everybody is.”

Thursday was the first day when school employees who work in Cumberland, Dauphin, Perry and northern York County could receive vaccinations through this special statewide initiative aimed at getting schools back to in-person learning five days a week.

The vaccination clinics are being run by the state’s 28 intermediate units in partnership with the Pennsylvania National Guard and AMI Expeditionary Healthcare LLC.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration reserved the first 94,600 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine for school staff and child care center workers. The educator vaccination initiative was recommended by the state’s bipartisan COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force.

Beth Richards, a health and physical education substitute teacher for several school districts, received her vaccine. Teachers and school staff from four counties receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in East Pennsboro Township, March 11, 2021.

Dan Gleiter / PennLive

Beth Richards, a health and physical education substitute teacher for several school districts, received her vaccine. Teachers and school staff from four counties receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in East Pennsboro Township, March 11, 2021.

Priority for the first shots is being given to those who work in elementary schools or with students with disabilities or English language learners, since those children have shown to be most susceptible to learning loss. The age or health of those employees makes no difference as to the order in which their appointments are scheduled, Saia said.

The 5,500 doses allocated to the Capital Area Intermediate Unit covers the bulk of the public, private and charter school employees who signed up to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, she said. The remaining 3,000 who requested the vaccine will receive their shots in about four weeks when the next batch of that vaccine arrives.

Saia said she could sense the emotion from the school employees as they made their way past the registration desk and temperature check and back to a vaccinator inside the IU headquarters in East Pennsboro Township.

“I’m telling you they are so happy, so happy and I get it,” she said. “They are so relieved the anxiety and worry that they have that they are taking their lives in their hands or their families’ lives by going to school and being around all these folks is gone. So that really does help.”

Wolf said the task force sees this initiative as a way to not only get children back into the classroom but allow parents to return to work and get the state’s economy rolling again.

Administration officials say dedicating the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to those who work with children prevents them from competing with senior citizens and those with medical conditions, who can still get the two-shot Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

Trinity Thornhill, a communications specialist for Susquehanna Township School District, received her vaccine. Teachers and school staff from four counties receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in East Pennsboro Township, March 11, 2021.

Dan Gleiter / PennLive

Trinity Thornhill, a communications specialist for Susquehanna Township School District, received her vaccine. Teachers and school staff from four counties receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in East Pennsboro Township, March 11, 2021.

But still it isn’t sitting well with those in Phase 1A who are having difficulty scheduling an appointment to get their protection from COVID-19.

Beth Richards, a 61-year-old substitute gym teacher, knows that well. She said her 87-year-old mother had “a horrible time” trying to get an appointment but she finally got one.

Wearing her “I got my vaccine at the CAIU” sticker on her shirt as she exited the IU headquarters, Richards said she can now feel more comfortable about taking her subbing assignments that come her way usually two to three times a week. She also is happy that the vaccine she received is the one-dose variety.

“One shot was fabulous,” Richards said. “I’m so glad I only have to do it one time.”

Triniti Thornhill, a communication specialist at Susquehanna Township School District, said she too was relieved to have received the vaccine.

“I feel this will enable for us to have students to be able to come in that need to come in to get in-person eduction to best serve our students properly,” she said.

While she feels her school district does a good job sanitizing and following the necessary protocols, Thornhill has severe asthma, which isn’t one of the pre-existing conditions that would have allowed her to be vaccinated during Phase 1A. So she admits it is a relief for her personally.

Getting teachers and support staff vaccinated will not eliminate the need for mask-wearing and social distancing in schools because students are not vaccinated, Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said in a Facebook Live conversation with PennLive’s editorial board on Wednesday.

Still, he added, “I have to tell you our members are thrilled this is happening and that they’re going to be able to see their students more.”

Currently, about two-thirds of Pennsylvania school districts are operating with at least a few days of in-person instruction.

Red Lion School District math teacher Rachel Curry shared with the editorial board about the struggle teachers face in the classroom this year due to the social distancing that is required.

Beth Richards, a health and physical education substitute teacher for several school districts, received her vaccine. Teachers and school staff from four counties receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in East Pennsboro Township, March 11, 2021.

Dan Gleiter / PennLive

Beth Richards, a health and physical education substitute teacher for several school districts, received her vaccine. Teachers and school staff from four counties receive the COVID-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic at the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in East Pennsboro Township, March 11, 2021.

“It’s really hard to have the students feel like we’re connected to them and we care about them when they ask a question and we stand six feet away,” she said. Even though the mitigation efforts are going to remain in place, she said, “It’s going to allow for that personal connection that we haven’t been able to have.”

Another advantage to getting staff vaccinated is the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, which suggests if someone is exposed to COVID-19 and has had the vaccine, teachers won’t have to quarantine and schools won’t have to close.

“They can still teach. They can still be with their children because there isn’t that concern so parents aren’t going to get that note saying the classroom has to close down for 10 days,” Askey said. “That’s another reason why this vaccine is important because not only is it going to bring more kids back. It’s going to give a continuity to the instruction that has been missing.”

With all that said, Askey said getting the vaccine into the arms of school employees gets teachers and school support staff “one step closer to what is normal.”

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