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'There Are Educators Dying': Texas' Teachers Union Pushes For Vaccine Prioritization

A school worker wearing a green mask and a blue polo shirt stares off in the middle of a cafeteria filled with plexiglass walls. The photo was taken during a  laptop/technology pickup at the Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center in Dallas.
Keren Carrión | KERA News
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A school worker wearing a green mask and a blue polo shirt stares off in the middle of a cafeteria filled with plexiglass walls. The photo was taken during a laptop/technology pickup at the Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center in Dallas.

Teachers have been labeled essential workers. But in Texas, despite being a vulnerable population, they haven't been prioritized for a COVID-19 vaccine. And they're not happy about it, either.

When Texas began distributing the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14, most people knew essential workers were going to be first in line.

But after doctors, nurses and other frontline health care workers, many people figured educators might be next. Theye were wrong.

One week after distribution began, on Dec. 21, the Texas Department of State Health Services expanded eligibility for the vaccine to include Texans 65 and older and thosewho are at least 16 with a chronic medical condition.

Eight weeks later, it’s still unclear when school workers will be able to get in line for a vaccine.

“The Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel continues to discuss who will be in the next group,” Imelda Garcia told reporters last week. The associate commissioner for Department of State Health Services said data was being “brought to the table” and stressed, “we haven’t made a final decision yet. But we do expect to have a robust conversation.”

Texas State Teachers Association president Ovidia Molina, said she is frustrated with the state health department. She’s frustrated with state leaders too.

“If [educators] weren’t being pushed back to what we feel are unsafe circumstances, then there wouldn’t be a problem with us waiting to get the vaccine,” she said. “But we are getting pushed back [and being told] to return to in-person classrooms.”

A lot of the conversation around when to vaccinate teachers, Molina said, has centered on whether or not students can infect adults with the coronavirus. But she argues that there are “some educators who come in contact with hundreds of other adults in the buildings that they work in.”

“Those are the people who are going to be spreading [COVID-19],” she said. “And we want to make sure all of our educators are safe. Not just our teachers. We want lunchroom personnel, our hall monitors, our secretaries – everybody who works in our schools is important and we want them protected.”

A Campaign To Get Educators & School Workers Vaccinated

Molina isn’t alone in her crusade to get educators inoculated.

In December, Fort Bend County Judge KP George sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking him to make the vaccine available to educators.

“As more students go back to in-person schooling, the likelihood of contracting the virus from young individuals who are often asymptomatic can increase,” George wrote. “Older age and pre-existing health conditions can leave teachers and other school staff in danger of facing a more adverse experience from COVID-19. Our teachers and school teams are invaluable community members.”

Lawmakers have chimed in too, like state Rep. Vikki Goodwin who also sent a letter to Gov. Abbott and tweeted, “We should be prioritizing vaccines to people who are unable to work from home: teachers, grocery store workers, etc.”

Even Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick shared support for prioritizing teachers and school staff for COVID-19 vaccinations. On Jan. 21, he requested that State Health Services re-evaluate their vaccine allocation plans and asked the department to find a place in line for teachers.

Still, despite Abbott saying that “Part of restoring normalcy in our state is to make sure that we get our kids back in schools,” Texas’ leaders opted not to prioritize teachers for the COVID-19 vaccine. And instead, those same leaders, including Abbott, have pushed for a return to in-person learning. Which Molina said, makes teachers among those at highest risk for encountering the virus.

“It’s up to the state to decide when we are important enough to get the vaccine,” said Molina. "And that is something that is really hard for educators to understand. You know, that our governor can call us ‘essential,’ can tell us to ‘get to work,’ and then kick us out of the line of priority to get the vaccine.”

A nurse wearing gloves and a face shield administers a shot to a nurse who works on the COVID-19 team at Parkland Hospital.
The supply of COVID-19 vaccines continues to grow in Texas, despite issues with Johnson & Johnson’s formula. And all Texans are currently eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Here's what you need to know about the plan to distribute vaccine doses and how you can get one.

Standing In Harms Way To Protect Students’ Future

Being an educator has a toll, Molina said. You’re asked to give a lot of yourself. And most teachers are happy to do so for their students and community. But she believes Texas is asking for too much from school workers.

“Look, there are some educators who are dying,” Molina said. “Every single day, our educators are wondering if today’s the day they’re going to get sick. And this isn’t a possibility that they haven’t seen. They’ve seen it in their own schools.”

Molina thinks lawmakers have pushed teachers back into the classroom because of funding and because the state has not said whether they plan to
penalize school districts for teaching remotely.

“We are getting pushed back [into the classroom] so that we don’t lose funding so that our kids don’t get punished next year,” she said. “Maybe if that wasn’t an issue, we would listen to the science.”

Molina said schools that have returned to in-person classes have had school continue to be disrupted because of positive COVID-19 cases. Some schools in the state have closed for weeks at a time to quarantine. And she said that caused trauma too.

Washington, D.C., and 26 states are currently allowing some or all of their teachers and school staff to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Got a tip? Email Hady Mawajdeh at hady@KERA.org. You can follow Hady on Twitter @hadysauce.

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