Georgia has not opened COVID-19 vaccination to teachers yet, but a small school district east of Athens still managed to offer shots to any employee who wanted them.
Elbert County Superintendent Jon Jarvis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he sees his teachers, bus drivers and other employees as “essential” personnel who should be prioritized for vaccination.
“They’re seeing it, they’re facing it every day, a lot of times with 20 kids in their classroom,” Jarvis said. He credits a local doctors’ office with making doses available to all of his employees.
Under state guidance, teachers in Georgia are not yet eligible for the vaccine, unless they happen to also be health care workers, first responders, nursing home workers or 65 and older.
The Medical Center of Elberton started vaccinating school employees a few weeks ago, after administering doses to all willing members of the state’s highest priority workers but before completing the vaccination of seniors.
Many children in the rural community on the South Carolina line lack internet service and rely on the schools for food, said Dr. Dan McAvoy, a center physician. “So we saw it as very important to get our school teachers vaccinated, and stepped out and did that. And then we saw the guidance later.”
Credit: AJC staff
Credit: AJC staff
The 3,000-student district, which has about 500 employees, has been operating mostly in-person. It had to close for six days before Thanksgiving due to staffing issues when teachers and more than 300 students had to quarantine, Jarvis said. He said he hoped the quarantine period, which can last up to 14 days, would be reduced for vaccinated teachers.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a medical journal that schools can safely operate face-to-face if basic precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing, are followed. But communities must prioritize schools and control transmission elsewhere with measures such as restricted indoor restaurant dining, the CDC researchers wrote.
Brooke McDowell, an administrator at Elberton’s medical center, said about 90% of the local first responders and medical personnel chose to get shots. After finishing with that group several weeks ago, the facility started administering the vaccine to local teachers and other school workers, though all willing seniors in what the federal government calls phase 1a had not yet been vaccinated. The center was still injecting as many as 90 seniors a day with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, McDowell said Monday.
“We’re not going to leave it on the shelf for it to ruin,” McDowell said. “The governor’s asked us to put shots in arms, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Elbert County is likely among the first school districts in the country to offer vaccination to all staff. Governors in Oregon and Kentucky have pushed to get teachers vaccinated by early to mid-February.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health said there is a vaccine shortage and providers have been asked to adhere to the phase guidelines unless that would result in waste. The vaccine spoils quickly, so the agency has told providers they can vaccinate anyone if they have open vials that must be used. The agency will notify providers when they can move to the next phase, 1b.
“Moving to additional phases without approval from DPH is a violation of the vaccine provider agreement,” the spokeswoman said in an email. “If an investigation confirms that a vaccine provider is in violation of the provider agreement, the agreement can be rescinded and the provider will no longer receive the vaccine.”
The spokeswoman said Tuesday afternoon that she would have to look into the situation in Elbert County.
So far, school districts in metro Atlanta have been vaccinating only their first phase employees, including those who qualify by age. Most teachers retire well before age 65 though, and Gov. Brian Kemp faces mounting pressure to begin vaccinating all school employees.
These workers suffer “mental and emotional trauma” each day, said a letter to Kemp on Sunday from a Cobb County school board member “in solidarity” with another dozen board members from around the state, most of them from metro Atlanta. Kemp’s office pushed back, saying the board members’ school districts should use their federal coronavirus relief money to buy personal protective equipment for teachers. Then, on Tuesday, the AJC obtained a copy of a letter from eleven metro Atlanta school superintendents asking Kemp to move teachers ahead in the vaccination line. “The longer we delay in vaccinating our teachers and school staff, the more we risk having to close our doors once again,” they wrote.
There have been isolated reports of educators dying around the state, including two in Cobb County last week and another in Cobb on Christmas Day. The Georgia Department of Education recently announced a task force of 13 superintendents who will develop model guidance for vaccinating school employees once they become eligible.
Teachers are anxious, and the vaccinations in Elbert County are welcome news for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “I hope this serves as a road map for other school districts,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, a lawyer with the group, which sent a letter to state health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey Tuesday urging her to prioritize and help coordinate the vaccination of school employees.
Lisa Morgan, a DeKalb County teacher and president of the Georgia Association of Educators, also welcomed the news of the vaccinations. She said her peers across the state are at “great risk” of infection in classrooms where the recommended social distancing is often not possible and masks are not mandatory.
Despite that, school employees in Elbert County appear to be wary of the vaccine. Jarvis, the superintendent, estimated that only 40% chose to get inoculated.
“I think they want to do it at some point but they wanted to wait and see,” Jarvis said. He got vaccinated himself to set an example and thinks his staff will warm to the idea in the coming months
The low vaccination rate among Elbert school employees did not surprise Robert Bednarczyk, assistant professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University. National surveys have been showing that 40% to 60% of Americans are reluctant to take one of the new vaccines, which use cutting-edge genetic technology.
This is the first time mRNA vaccines have been widely used, and the vaccines were developed rapidly, said Bednarczyk, with the Rollins School of Public Health. However, he said, the technology has been under development since after the first SARS virus emerged in 2002. “This isn’t some new technology that somebody started cooking up six months ago,” he said.
Bednarczyk is working with the Morehouse School of Medicine to study attitudes toward the vaccine among Black and Latino Georgians. Black survey respondents nationally have expressed suspicion about the medical establishment, in part due to past exploitation.
That doesn’t explain the reticence in Elbert County, a politically conservative community where about 70% of residents are white. An even higher percentage of teachers and other certified employees there — 90% — were white, according to 2017 state employment data when there were nearly 600 employees.
Edna Eberhardt, a high school civics teacher there, said her mother had her vaccinated for childhood illnesses when she was young and she had her own kids vaccinated when they were little. Eberhardt, who is Black, said she was not suspicious of the medical system but was concerned about her husband, who has underlying health complications that could make infection with COVID-19 riskier.
Eberhardt, who has a doctorate in teacher leadership, jumped at the chance to get vaccinated, getting a shot in her left arm on Jan. 6. She praised Superintendent Jarvis for making the vaccine available and for allowing teachers to leave during the school day to get it, if necessary. She hasn’t asked her colleagues whether they got vaccinated and doesn’t know why they would pass up the opportunity. “I called it a no-brainer for myself but I respect the opinions of others.”
She planned to get her second and final shot Wednesday after school.
Staff writer Kristal Dixon, newsroom data specialist Jennifer Peebles and news applications developer Emily Merwin DiRico contributed to this article.