Since returning to school last fall, teacher Clay Goodloe has received the same phone call on three occasions. Each time, he was told he had come into contact with someone who had the coronavirus. Each time, he had to self-quarantine for 10 days.
It’s a scenario that has been playing out for public school teachers around Texas this school year. It’s also one that could be avoided if teachers were prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Goodloe, 35, teaches and coaches at Plano West Senior High. He has taught in Plano Independent School District for the better part of the last decade. “It’s just incredibly frustrating that we haven’t been included,” he told the Observer.
“Teachers should be a priority because we have to go to school, and kids have to go to school,” he said. “We’re on the frontlines. We’re in crowded schools. Every time we get quarantined, our instruction gets weaker, and other people have to pick up the slack.”
When the pandemic first hit last year, schools around the state shut down. But Texas’ lockdown was short-lived, and a phased statewide reopening began last May.
For the first several weeks, public schools were allowed to conduct their instruction online. After that, students and their families could opt for e-learning, but most teachers and other school staff had no such choice.
At least 104,365 students and 58,358 staff members in public schools across the state have contracted the virus since schools opened their doors last fall, according to the Texas Department of Health Services’ most recent data.
Around the country, at least 26 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have included some or all teachers in their prioritized vaccination categories, according to the website Education Week. Texas is not one of them, but it is among the four states that have mandated that schools remain open.
During a press conference in December, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested that teachers would be high on the list. “Part of restoring normalcy in our state is to make sure that we get our kids back in schools,” he said. “Part of achieving that goal is to make sure that we will have teachers in a safe, secure situation, vaccinated, able to be in a classroom teaching without fear of getting COVID-19.”
Even as the vaccine ships out across the nation, teachers and other school staff in Texas appear to be a long way away from receiving it.
To date, the vaccine has been reserved for individuals in Texas who qualify under the criteria for Phase 1A and Phase 1B. Under 1A, frontline healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities could receive the vaccine. Phase 1B includes those aged 65 or older and individuals with underlying health conditions that put them at heightened risk from the virus.
Clay Robinson, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA), said his organization was surprised teachers and other school staff were not included in Phase 1B. The TSTA has asked Abbott to adjust the vaccine priority list to include educators earlier on.
If the state won’t change the list, the organization wants schools to be allowed to shut down and pause in-person instruction when local health authorities advise them to do so. Right now, closing shop means losing state funds. “We have asked the governor, and so far we’ve had no success, but we certainly believe that teachers should be [prioritized]," Robinson told the Observer.
“Our feeling is that these people are running risks, and many of them are getting infected and getting sick,” Robinson said. “We really believe that all school employees — not just teachers — should have priority for the vaccine.”
In January, Austin-based KXAN-TV reported dozens of Texas state lawmakers had called on Abbott to expand the list of those included in Phase 1B. In a letter, state Rep. Vikki Goodwin and 37 other Texas House Democrats urged Abbott to prioritize teachers and school employees as well as daycare workers and food service workers, among others.
Last summer, when Carrollton teacher Sean Kitchen, 32, learned that he and his colleagues would be back in the classroom for the 2020-2021 school year, he just assumed school employees would be among the first to get the vaccine.
“Considering the amount of traffic schools see per day, it seems like it would make sense to consider us essential workers and vaccinate us early on to help contain the spread of the virus,” he told the Observer.
As the school year has pressed on without teachers getting any closer to receiving the vaccine, Kitchen has seen the level of fear among his colleagues grow. When teachers do come down with the virus, or any other illness, a statewide substitute teacher shortage has made it difficult to find someone to fill in, he said.
The vaccine would go a long way in putting him and his colleagues at ease, he explained, especially those who are more susceptible to catching the virus. “It would be great for them to be vaccinated to alleviate those fears, but moreover it would be a sign of respect for their dedication to the job and their commitment to education,” he said.
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