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Ohio Teachers Could Get Vaccines Soon, But Will A Return To School Be Safe?

Educators applaud Governor Mike DeWine's decision to prioritize them in the vaccination distribution line, yet some still have concerns about classroom safety. [solarseven/shutterstock]
COVID-19 vaccine bottle

Gov. Mike DeWine, following U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines, has called for Ohio’s K-12 teachers and school staff to be next in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, along with residents older than 65 and those with developmental disabilities.  

DeWine’s plan includes getting Ohio educators – everyone from teachers to bus drivers and cafeteria workers – vaccinated beginning Feb. 1, with a goal of getting students back into schools, either full-time or as part of a hybrid model, by March 1.

Giving Ohio educators the vaccine is an important step to getting students back into the classroom safely, said Shari Obrenski, the Cleveland Teachers Union president. However, Obrenski questions DeWine’s time frame, particularly because of the time it would take to get staffers two vaccine shots and for the vaccine to take full effect.

“We also need to be concerned with the other aspects of reopening,” Obrenski said. “The need for appropriate ventilation is still going to be there, maintaining social distance and mask wearing is still going to be necessary.”

Only districts that commit to reopening by March 1 will have staff enrolled in the early vaccination program, according to DeWine’s plan. That caveat is concerning, said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, who points out districts that have stayed completely remote have often been in communities “disproportionately affected by this pandemic.”

“Communities of color, communities where students come from higher concentrations of poverty,” DiMauro said. “And in those places, that would seem to make sense that you put a premium on getting those school employees vaccinated as quickly as possible so that they can open as soon as possible. Don't penalize them for not being open now.”

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) and Akron Public Schools have stayed completely remote so far this school year, deciding it’s the safest option for students and staff during the pandemic for now.

In his most recent COVID-19 press conference, DeWine said "the majority of teachers have been back in class, at least part of the time" already, and acknowledged that by March 1, some teachers may have only received the first of two vaccine shots. 

Among the many Ohio teachers talking to their students almost entirely through a computer screen, CMSD math teacher Shauntina Thornton tries to make virtual class as fun as possible for her sixth graders. Still, Thornton said, it’s no replacement for being together in a classroom.

“Even something as simple as helping them with lockers, this is the first group of sixth graders I will not have taught them how to do the combination lock,” Thornton said.

The prospect of getting the vaccine soon comes down to one thing, in Thornton’s perspective: “As long as this is going to have some benefit for the students, I'm good.” 

Obrenski, said, however, there are teachers and school staff who don’t want to get the vaccine because of an historic and racially based mistrust of the medical system.

Or, they’re like Akron Public Schools math teacher Amber Porter, who wants to get back in the classroom but is very unsure about a vaccine developed in under a year.

“I just feel like I don't know the long-term side effects,” Porter said. “I was just looking on the CDC website, at the app that they use for people that get the vaccine to check in and report any symptoms and stuff like that. It just feels kind of like we're all sort of guinea pigs right now. So that scares me.” 

Other local educators, like Akron intervention specialist Isabel Sesitito, share similar concerns. With many allergies, Sestito said she is worried about having an adverse reaction to the vaccine.

“I also have a deep desire to feel safe again and to return to school, as I see how my own children’s mental health is being affected by isolation and I worry about my students as well,” Sestito said. “I waver between both and suppose the final decision will be made at the moment that I have it offered.”

Even if staff are fully vaccinated and masked with safety protocols in place, educators like CMSD model lead teacher Reta Berry worry about students spreading the virus amongst each other. 

“A lot of our kids are being raised by grandparents and older, you know, those people that are not in line to be vaccinated. So, what do you do?” Berry said. “Then you still have the problem of them taking it back home to someone else.”

Parents like Linda Zolten Wood share that fear. Her 14-year-old CMSD ninth grader has breathing issues and her husband has asthma, which makes her whole family high-risk.

“There’s no way we’re gonna have our kid come exposed to somebody else that has it. I'm so glad the teachers are going to get vaccinated. Until all the students are vaccinated, it's not happening. Not for us,” Zolten Wood said.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”