Douglas County School District interim Superintendent Corey Wise is urging a speedier timeline for vaccinating workers in education, but stopped short of saying whether the state’s recent pause on teacher vaccinations was the right or wrong decision.
Wise said he was an adamant advocate for moving teachers and school staff further up in the state’s vaccine distribution plan. He celebrated when that happened and announced that the district expected to begin vaccinating teachers and staff the week of Jan. 4.
Then state officials told health agencies to pause vaccinating educators until people 70 and older had been inoculated. The news meant teachers may not receive shots until March. Wise hopes that changes.
“Vaccinating teachers and school staff, I’m still going to continue to advocate for, and it’s not to jump over groups, but it’s being included with those groups,” Wise said to Colorado Community Media on Jan. 11.
Ensuring teachers and district staff have access to vaccinations is critical to returning students to in-person learning, providing relief to working parents and stabilizing the local economy, he said.
The district had given its health-care providers Excel sheets denoting employees who would qualify under Phase 1 of the state’s plan, Wise said.
“We were doing our best to send out invitations to everyone,” he said.
Wise said changes in messaging about distribution plans added “complication in an already complicated environment.” More than 40 school nurse consultants, who qualify under Phase 1A of the state distribution plan, received doses on Jan. 6, but the disttrict had to halt plans to bring teachers and other school staff into the mix.
Meanwhile, educators were being vaccinated at charter school STEM School Highlands Ranch.
A spokeswoman said educators at the school arranged appointments with Littleton Adventist Hospital before the state issued guidance about prioritizing people 70 and older.
The hospital first contacted the school on Dec. 31 for lists of staff members and began contacting STEM employees individually on Jan. 4. When the hospital did not cancel appointments, school staff arrived as scheduled and received their shots.
The spokeswoman did not know who or how many staff received doses because they coordinated directly with the hospital.
A Centura Health spokesman said the provider is working with a number of school districts including DCSD. Right now, Centura is working to vaccinate school district health-care workers.
“We scheduled a limited number of teachers in our state to receive the vaccine (the week of Jan. 4) in order to fill our vaccination clinics. This helped us maintain efficiency, as our goal is to ensure every dose of vaccine is utilized,” spokesman Kevin Massey said in an emailed statement.
Centura also honored appointments scheduled before the state health department’s new guidance, he said.
Moving forward, Centura will focus on inoculating people 70 and older and is opening more sites to reach them, Massey said.
On Jan. 8, the district announced it plans to prioritize staff 70 and older, those providing health-related services and those working closely with special needs students to vaccinate through February.
Teachers, school-based staff and other employees with close contact with students would follow, likely beginning in March. District employees are not required to get the vaccine.
The district is tentatively planning to bring middle and high school students back to hybrid learning by Jan. 25.
The district might resume hybrid or in-person learning before widespread vaccination of its staff, but vaccinating employees would further protect those plans, Wise said.
“Vaccines of our staff opens that door wide. It makes it sustainable and attainable,” he said.
District staff are also planning for a full return to in-person learning at some point this semester, although Wise said he could not predict when that might be. Elementary school students began the semester on Jan. 5 with full in-person learning. Middle and high schools are learning remotely.
Douglas County Federation President Kallie Leyba said members of the local teachers union understand the need to prioritize high-risk community members, “our friends and neighbors who are dying from this.”
But teachers want to get back in classrooms and seem eager to be vaccinated, she said. Vaccines should not be required among district employees, but their importance “can’t be overstated,” Leyba said.
“It was certainly disappointing to get our hopes up and then hear a couple weeks later that it wasn’t actually going to happen in January,” she said. “The communication confusion was the biggest disappointment.”
While Leyba would like to see teachers vaccinated by spring break, she’s bracing members for a longer timeline, in which they receive first doses in late March and second doses in April, “and then we only have one month left of school.”
“I think we should keep our expectations tempered,” she said.
Leyba informally surveyed some members who generally felt comfortable returning to hybrid learning, she said, but they are skeptical that full in-person learning would last if the district goes that route this semester.
“As much as they want it, they realize that when we pack that many older kids, who transmit this disease like adults, in a classroom, the biggest concern is that it won’t be sustainable,” Leyba said.
Wise stressed during recent school board meetings that he does not believe schools are a significant source of COVID-19’s spread — that most exposures among students and staff came from outside school buildings.
The district is entering “a new environment,” though, and will closely monitor spread of the new COVID mutation now circulating in the state, Wise said. He’s not sure what that might mean for containing the virus within district buildings.
Leyba said she too will keep a close eye on the new mutation’s spread, and whether that means more potential for spread within schools.
The district has not been routinely testing students, an age group that’s often asymptomatic, she said, signaling to her there’s little evidence proving or disproving whether most exposures came from outside buildings.
She’s optimistic about at-home tests for students promised by the state, but in light of the vaccine pause, will believe that when she sees it, Leyba said.
“I guess I feel burned,” she said.