Some Georgia schools start COVID-19 vaccinations today

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The wholesale vaccination of Georgia teachers begins today, raising hopes for the end of the educational crisis that began a year ago this week.

It was then, on March 9, that Fulton County Schools raised the alarm, announcing a districtwide closure for the next day that would ultimately endure for the entire spring term. The rest of the state followed days later.

Schools have struggled to remain open ever since, plagued by COVID-19 infections and quarantines of staff and students. Some never opened: DeKalb and Clayton counties only recently announced plans to return to classrooms. For their students, as with an untold number across the state, school has been on a computer screen.

Most states have been vaccinating teachers for weeks, many having started in January. Georgia moved other groups ahead of teachers, including seniors, with state leaders saying they wanted to decrease the virus’ impact on older Georgians and on hospitals.

In the meantime, some anxious teachers have been driving to neighboring states to get shots.

ExploreGetting a COVID-19 vaccine in metro Atlanta: Who is eligible, how to find an appointment

According to the governor’s office, there are 250,000 K-12 employees now added to the eligibility list.

Vaccine supplies remain constrained. But Gov. Brian Kemp is earmarking the first shipment of the new one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine — 83,000 doses — for educators, who can also take one of the other vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna.

Soon after being vaccinated, they will no longer have to quarantine after exposure to the virus, so long as they remain asymptomatic, said Ryan Loke, a Kemp staffer.

Some school districts are starting vaccinations later this week, or later this month, but others are not waiting.

Gwinnett County, where 1 in 10 of Georgia’s students goes to school, starts today. The state’s largest school district will send teachers to a state-run mass vaccination clinic in a shopping mall. Thomaston-Upson Schools, due south of Atlanta, has been telling parents to keep their kids home for two days, so teachers can get their shots at a local hospital today, with Tuesday reserved in case employees have any side effects.

Superintendents are planning for side effects in different ways.

ExploreGeorgia teachers going out of state to get vaccinated

Many, such as Grant Rivera, of Marietta, where vaccinations will start Thursday after school, are holding events late in the week. “That obviously gives us the weekend for folks to potentially shake off any symptoms,” he said.

Second doses there will be administered twice in April, on Fridays. Marietta is doing curbside vaccinations at a high school. Fulton County and Atlanta Public Schools have secured a spot in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The tiny Early County School System in southwest Georgia will bring the vaccine to teachers outside their classrooms.

As of Wednesday, 38 states were already vaccinating teachers, according to the publication Education Week.

Mesa Public Schools, in Arizona, finished giving the second round of doses of the Moderna vaccine to at least 5,000 employees in late February, Superintendent Andi Fourlis said.

“They came through and had tears and said, ‘I never thought that this day would happen,’” she said last week. “It’s become very liberating for many.”

There has been a “significant decline” in infections since then, Fourlis said, though unvaccinated students are back in the buildings. She staged vaccinations at high schools, offering doses to volunteers from the community who helped to manage the foot traffic.

Three-quarters of the Mesa school employees said they wanted to get vaccinated, but there is no way of knowing exactly how many did because some went through private providers, Fourlis said.

Jennifer Bronson, chief of staff for Hamilton County Schools, which serves Chattanooga, also advised on-campus vaccinations.

“Just like the flu vaccine, the closer you can physically get it to the teachers, the more likely that you’re going to get participation,” Bronson said.

One to One Health, a private provider, is administering the doses in Hamilton and a nearby district. Ashley Berry, vice president of clinical services, said 65% to 70% of the employees indicated they wanted to get vaccinated.

Fourlis, the Mesa superintendent, said 75% of her employees said they wanted vaccination.

Those are higher percentages than in much of Georgia. Late last month, Kemp said 45% of school employees wanted vaccination, but Loke, his staffer, said the early surveys were inaccurate and upon closer inspection revealed that 63% of those surveyed, about 136,000 employees, want shots.

Teachers should not delay getting them, said Debbie Baker, who teaches third grade at Fairyland Elementary School, a North Georgia school within walking distance of the Tennessee line.

Baker has already been vaccinated: Her school administration arranged appointments for staff at a pharmacy in Hamilton County in late February. But it turned out to be too late for her.

“I was exposed Tuesday, vaccinated Thursday and symptomatic Friday,” Baker said last week. “And then tested positive Sunday.” She said a couple of other teachers and several students at her school have since fallen ill.

ExploreAtlanta coronavirus vaccine news and updates

Educator vaccinations:

  • How many K-12 employees are now eligible: 250,000
  • How many said they will get vaccinated: 136,090, or 63% of those surveyed
  • How many doses are coming: 83,000 by Johnson & Johnson (exclusively for K-12 educators); 223,790 of other vaccines
  • Number of states vaccinating teachers, as of last week: 38

Sources: Office of Gov. Brian Kemp, Education Week