As the Anchorage School District prepares to open its classrooms for the district’s youngest children later this month, many of its teachers are concerned that they will not have timely access to a COVID-19 vaccine.
The leader of the Anchorage Education Association, Corey Aist, has called on the district to better align its school start plan with the rollout of the vaccine, or to allow teachers, staff and students to return to classrooms on a voluntary basis. Aist testified to the school board Tuesday evening and to the Anchorage Assembly’s Health Committee on Wednesday. School staff who are forced to return in-person have no say in the timeline of vaccine distribution or the timeline of the back-to-school plan, Aist said.
“We’re all frustrated and concerned that the timeline to go back to face-to-face learning does not coincide with vaccine distribution to us,” he said in an interview.
Still, school district officials are steadfast in the plan to open schools on Jan. 19. Superintendent Deena Bishop during an interview Wednesday said that the district has created a robust COVID-19 mitigation plan and that it must prioritize its mission to educate children.
Under the state’s phased and tiered rollout plan, teachers and public-facing school staff 50 and older will be eligible to receive a vaccine when the plan reaches Phase 1B, Tier 2. Those school staff who are 16 to 50 years old with two or more high-risk health conditions will be able to get the vaccine next, followed by those who are ages 16 to 50.
State health officials have said that it’s likely front-line essential workers won’t begin receiving vaccines until late February, starting with Phase 1B, Tier 2 — a full month after the Anchorage School District reopens some classrooms for in-person learning.
While some teachers and staff are ready to return to classrooms with or without a vaccine, others say they are being forced to choose between employment or staying safe from the virus.
The plan to reopen schools on Jan. 19 brings back elementary students in pre-K through second grade and high-needs special education students through the sixth grade.
Most other students will continue with online Zoom classes until later in the school year, but some will attend small in-person tutoring sessions and mini-classes for students who need in-person learning most.
Bishop during the interview Wednesday said while online learning works for some families, for many — especially young students, special education students and other vulnerable groups — it is not effective, she has said.
To allow teachers to return on a volunteer-only basis would be wrong because it would mean picking and choosing which students get the in-person instruction, she said.
“Simply put, we’re a public education institution and we serve 43,000 kids. And we’re just not a volunteer organization,” Bishop said. “Which kids do you pick? Which kids would we pick that get services and get the robust face-to-face teaching and which kids do we pick that don’t?”
When teachers do get access to vaccines is dependent on the state’s supplies, Bishop said. Some staff will be vaccinated by the end of January, she said.
Bishop said that 400 district employees, including nurses and special education staff that work in a clinical health capacity with students, are already signed up for vaccines under the current phases of the rollout plan. Those who are 65 and older are also eligible and can get their first vaccine starting Monday.
Still, it will be weeks before those older staff will be able to get a second dose, with school well underway, said Aist, with the teachers union.
The Anchorage School Board last month passed a memorandum that directs the superintendent not to postpone the reopening plans, which have been postponed three times previously during the pandemic.
A school district survey of teachers sent out in December showed that of the 51% of teachers who answered, 77% plan to receive the vaccine.
Anchorage elementary school teacher Kayla Page testified to the school board Tuesday and said that some teachers with serious health concerns have applied for medical leave and have been denied.
“If you’re a teacher and you feel unsafe about returning face-to-face, if you don’t want to risk your life or the lives of your family or your children, your only option is to really resign. And this is heartbreaking,” she said.
“Why are we considering forcing school staff who are at all different risk levels back into school buildings where this virus will most certainly spread?” Page said. “Wouldn’t the logical and ethical thing to do be, to at the very least, wait until all school staff have had the opportunity to get both doses of the vaccine, if they wanted to?”
COVID-19 cases in Anchorage have been on the decline, but rates are still far above the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s highest-risk category for transmission in schools.
Aist said that teachers are concerned for students, too, because they could contract the virus from an unvaccinated teacher in a classroom and bring it home to their families.
Aist also said that he would like to see the district, the state and the advisory committee making recommendations on distribution working together to ensure that in-person school is rolled out in tandem with vaccine distributions for school staff and for students.
“The problem is that the right hand is not really working with the left hand very well,” he said. “We have a state-level vaccine distribution process. But we also have a state-level-wide interest in getting all of our students back in schools.”