San Jose teachers could be next in line for COVID-19 vaccine
Bellarmine College Prep teacher Ann Roemer teaches AP Physics. Photo courtesy of Chris Maciel and Bellarmine College Prep.

Some San Jose educators, anxious to return to in-classroom teaching, are eager to get the COVID-19 vaccine after Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed teachers be next in line.

Vaccinations are one part of the Newsom’s $2 billion “Safe Schools for All Plan” that takes effect this month. The plan aims to open California elementary schools as soon as February and looks to vaccinate teachers through Spring 2021.

Newsom announced Dec. 28 that school staff and other childcare providers could be prioritized in Phase 1B of the statewide vaccine rollout. Other recipients could include people 75 and older, emergency services workers and food and agriculture workers such as farm workers and grocery workers.

It’s unclear when the county will reach that tier and is currently vaccinating health care workers in the first phase.

Newsom’s plan is being applauded by local education leaders.

“Schools are an integral part of our society,” said San Jose Unified School District spokesperson Jennifer Maddox. “San Jose Unified supports the efforts of the governor and the Legislature to prioritize getting students back on campus, including COVID-19 vaccines for teachers. We are confident that this can be done.”

Teachers are eager to get the vaccine

Danielle Wheatley, a kindergarten teacher at John Jay Montgomery Elementary School in San Jose, said keeping small children focused during online lessons has been a challenge. She welcomes the chance to return to the classroom.

But even there, it can be difficult to be an effective teacher, if you have to maintain social distancing — a necessity without a vaccine, Wheatley said. That’s because effective teaching can often literally mean hands-on teaching, she said.

“Normally, in a kindergarten class, you would be able to put your hand over their hand and help guide them on how to write letters and how to work on things,” Wheatley said. “We won’t be able to do that even if we’re back in the classroom. The challenges are there no matter how we are teaching.”

Wheatley said she’d line up for a vaccine as soon as it’s available.

“It would be good to have teachers next on the list because I know it’s hard for the families to have the kids at home,” she said. “It would really help everybody if teachers could get the vaccine and be back in the classroom. I’m not saying it will be easy but it will be better.”

Sylvia Liu, a teacher at Piedmont Hills High School, contracted COVID-19 earlier this year. She’s been working from home but said she would take the vaccine to keep students and staff safe.

“Having had COVID, it wasn’t even my own worries for myself because I’m young and healthy,” Liu said. “I was more worried about the people I could have been in contact with and could have given the virus to them.”

Liu said the vaccine is crucial for reopening schools and returning to normal.

“There’s a lot that we don’t know about the long-term effects of this vaccine, but the fact is, by teachers getting it, we are going to return to school safely,” Liu said. “It’s going to decrease the number of COVID cases and deaths and that’s what we want.”

Teachers who have returned are worried about catching COVID-19

Some private schools have already been asked to return to in-person instruction despite the threat of COVID-19. One local Catholic school teacher — who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution — worries every day about catching or spreading the virus in class.

The teacher returned to in-person classes in November but said many instructors have been in the classroom since October. “I’m in a contained room for 7-plus-hour a day with 15 other bodies,” the instructor said.

The teacher did not have another choice and was forced to go back to school as cases continued to skyrocket in Santa Clara County. As of Jan. 1, Santa Clara County had recorded 71,755 cumulative cases and 747 deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions people to avoid crowded indoor spaces, citing data that shows the virus can spread easily in enclosed spaces with “inadequate ventilation.”

“My school has been doing a really good job about safety procedures and I’m thankful for that — but it’s still very stressful,” the teacher said. “If I had the option, I’d still be working from home for the safety of myself and my husband.”

The teachers interviewed by San José Spotlight said they don’t know whether vaccines will be mandated or how they’ll be distributed.

There are still “unanswered questions”

In a statement, the California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd said the organization appreciates the governor’s plan for reopening safely. But the plan leaves “many unanswered questions” about implementation and execution, Boyd said.

Indeed, schools have concerns beyond just protecting teachers and other employees from contracting COVID-19. Schools can serve as disease vectors; officials have to worry about unvaccinated students transmitting the virus to their similarly unprotected peers and their peers’ families. Districts have already been wrangling with those concerns, and Newsom’s plan tries to address them through contact tracing, regular testing of students and school employees, and mandated mask wearing.

Other states including Arizona, Ohio, Illinois and Tennessee are also considering prioritizing teachers for the next wave of vaccines. The Chicago Tribune reported that school nurses would possibly help with the rollout.

Since California is far from being COVID-free, Boyd said CTA will continue to support distance learning for schools in counties that are in the purple tier, which includes Santa Clara County, and have widespread COVID-19 transmission.

“We look forward to hearing more information and hope the new guidelines that the governor said would be released next week will create a coherent statewide plan, rather than creating more confusion for parents and school districts,” Boyd said. “This must be a joint effort to ensure a safe return to our classrooms where we know our students learn best and thrive.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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