Metro school board members want Kemp to prioritize COVID-19 vaccine for teachers

01/21/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Gov. Brian Kemp greets someone before the start of a COVID-19 update press conference at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, January 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
01/21/2021 — Atlanta, Georgia — Gov. Brian Kemp greets someone before the start of a COVID-19 update press conference at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, January 21, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Several boards of education members around metro Atlanta have asked Gov. Brian Kemp to do more to ensure classrooms will be safe for teachers, but the governor’s office on Tuesday said those elected officials should look closer to home if they want improved measures.

Cobb school board member Dr. Jaha Howard wrote a letter dated Sunday to Kemp asking him to take three steps to help teachers feel safer in the classroom: Prioritize access to COVID-19 vaccines for teachers and school staff members; provide medical-grade face masks for all school staff members; and collect and review anonymous feedback related to COVID-19 from public education staff.

“While most sectors of our economy have strong voices to champion their perspectives, we stand as champions for the men and women who dedicate their lives to educating our students,” the letter states. It was signed by 12 other elected board members from five other districts.

Cody Hall, spokesman for Gov. Brian Kemp, said the school districts whose board members signed the letter have received a combined $643 million in federal coronavirus relief funding within the past year. The state has provided more than 8 million masks, 287,000 gallons of hand sanitizing gel, about 20,000 hand sanitizing stations and about 52,000 face shields to schools around the state, Hall said.

“On top of what the state has done, these members should look at utilizing some of those funds to purchase PPE as needed by individual school systems,” Hall said.

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The letter was signed by Cobb school board members Howard, Leroy “Tre” Hutchins and Charisse Davis. Other school board members who signed are Eshe’ Collins, Jason Esteves, Leslie Grant and Erika Mitchell of Atlanta Public Schools; Jasmine Bowles of Clayton County Public Schools; Diijon DaCosta and Allyson Gevertz of Dekalb County School District; Syntel Brown of Griffin-Spalding County School System; and Dr. Tarece Johnson and Karen Watkins of Gwinnett County Public Schools.

DaCosta, who is DeKalb’s school board vice chair, said ensuring the protection of school staff is a top priority because educators “are responsible for our most prized possessions: Our scholars.”

“Just as essential workers representing healthcare and other sectors are adequately equipped with safety equipment and protective gear, educators should also have access,” he said. “They should have access to PPE throughout their facilities, access to vaccinations, and the right to know that their feedback is important.”

Howard said the letter was written to make sure Kemp was moving “with the same sense of urgency we have” as board members. He said school boards are balancing calls by parents and politicians to keep classrooms open while still ensuring teachers and staff are safe.

The letter calls on Kemp to commit to fixing the “inefficiencies in the vaccine distribution” system.

Teachers are not currently eligible for vaccines unless they are age 65 or older. Because the average age of a classroom teacher is 42, the majority must wait for the next phase of vaccinations to begin, but no date has been given on when that might happen. Atlanta Public Schools, Marietta City Schools and the Fulton County School System have already arranged special vaccination clinics for employees who were 65 and older.

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State School Superintendent Richard Woods has asked about a dozen superintendents to serve on a vaccination task force. Woods has said he hopes to expedite a rollout of the vaccine once the state advances to the next vaccination phase, which includes teachers.

Hall said the state gets 120,000 doses each week of the COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed among the people who currently qualify to get it, which amounts to about 2 million people. As of Monday, the state had given out nearly 675,000 vaccines. Once the state’s supply of vaccine increases, Hall said “we will absolutely” expand access to educators and other school staff members.

“We still have a ways to go with our (phase) 1A+ expanded criteria,” Hall said, which covers frontline healthcare workers and those over 65, who are more at risk of contracting the vaccine.

ExploreGeorgia school leaders to coordinate teacher vaccination planning

Howard sent the letter days after more than 100 teachers rallied Thursday outside Cobb school district offices. The protesters want the district to close classrooms in light of the rising COVID-19 cases. Three Cobb educators — Patrick Key, Dana Johnson and Cynthia Lindsey — have died of COVID-19 since last month.

More than 120 teachers across five schools called out sick Monday due to the illness or because they had to quarantine after being exposed.

The Cobb school board member said the Cobb school district for months has struggled to provide enough healthy teachers to teach students in person, particularly when it comes to finding substitute teachers to fill in the gaps.

Howard also said a lot of frustration remains among teachers and staff who are asking district leadership to share more information about the data it uses to justify keeping classrooms open.

“We are in a crisis, and we can’t just cling to positive rhetoric to get out of it,” he said. “It’s going to take acknowledging hard truths and hard work to get through it together. We have areas to improve, and I include myself in that statement.”

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