By MEREDITH DELISO, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — Health care workers and residents in long-term care facilities will likely be among the first to have access to a COVID-19 vaccine. Who’s next in line could be from among a pool of essential workers, and educators hope they’re at the top of that list.
“I would love enough vaccines to be available so teachers and educators and education support personnel could be moved up on the list as quickly as possible,” Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of the North Shore School District 112 in Highland Park, Illinois, told ABC News.
Lubelfeld’s district, which serves 700 students across 10 campuses, opened in September with a hybrid model, with about 85% of students in-person. After eight weeks, the district had to pivot to remote learning due to increasing rates of COVID-19 transmission in the county.
Lubelfeld is hoping vaccination could be a mitigation measure that would allow schools to reopen in-person safely.
“We are all looking for this vaccination, anything that can get us back to fully in person is really our aim,” he said. “We just want the kids and teachers back on campus.”
Pushing for phase 1b
Last week, the independent experts on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, voted that health care personnel treating patients, as well as workers and residents in long-term care facilities, should get a vaccine that has been granted emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration in the first round — referred to as “phase 1a,” when there are limited doses available.
The committee will consider additional groups when the vaccine is available. That could happen any day now.
An FDA panel recommended Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine candidate for authorization on Thursday (full agency authorization is still needed), and will consider Moderna’s vaccine on Dec. 17. Both vaccines have shown to be highly effective, and Canada authorized Pfizer’s vaccine on Wednesday, a day after Britain began distributing it.
Between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the U.S. should have access to about 40 million doses by the end of December, allowing 20 million people to get the two-dose regimen, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Phase 1b will focus on essential workers, the committee has said. That could include police, firefighters, workers in food production and transportation and teachers.
Education groups have been pushing for school staff to be included in that next round.
“Phase 1b recommendations should include educators, school staff and at-risk students. The vaccine must be readily available to them on-site to allow for the safe, orderly and timely reopening of schools,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wrote in a letter to ACIP Chairman José Romero last week that was shared with ABC News.
The AFT has also joined other education groups in pushing for school workers — including teachers, aides, food service and custodial workers and administrators — to prioritize for vaccine distribution, as a way to bring students back into the classroom safely.
“Our students need to come back to school safely, educators want to welcome them back, and no one should have to risk their health to make this a reality,” the groups wrote in a letter to ACIP last week.
Vaccination playbooks in flux
Governors ultimately will have authority over how the vaccine is distributed in their states, and counties may further refine priorities at the local level.
Many states are still in the process of finalizing vaccine distribution plans that they submitted to the CDC in mid-October, and are looking to the ACIP for further guidance. Illinois, for instance, has not made any decisions on phase 1b, pending ACIP recommendations. Georgia, Vermont and Virginia have also said they will await recommendations from the ACIP.
Some states that have more up-to-date plans are prioritizing teachers. In their most recent plans, which were updated this week, Nebraska and South Carolina have put school staff in phase 1b, along with other essential workers. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has also said the state’s plan will prioritize teachers; they are in phase 1b of the state’s vaccination plan.
On Thursday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced that K-12 school staff, including teachers and administrators, will be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines as part of phase 1, directly after healthcare workers, based on new recommendations from the state’s Strategic Vaccination Coalition.
“We want to make sure that our students are going to school to learn — we need students to learn — but we need teachers to be able to teach,” Herbert said at a press briefing. “We’re trying to make sure we have as safe an environment for our students and teachers as we can, so they can continue to teach in class.”
The priority is also aimed at helping minimize disruption for families and the “ping-pong” effect of going between remote and in-person learning, he said.
“We think this is going to be a step in the right direction,” Herbert said.
Other states have educators in phase 2 — when phase 1 is complete and vaccines are more widely available, but still not accessible to the general public. Colorado’s vaccination plan has teachers, along with other essential workers and high-risk populations, in its phase 2. Critical infrastructure workers, including educators, are in phase 2 of Maryland’s plan, officials announced this week.
Louisiana and Tennessee are also among those states that have K-12 teachers and school staff in phase 2 of their draft vaccination plans.
State plans could still change, as the ACIP continues to release guidance.
Within a state, certain counties — and, as a result, school districts — may also be prioritized to receive doses. Depending on availability, vaccines may be rolled out based on risk factors like the highest death rates per capita. That’s an approach Illinois is taking for its first distribution of doses.
Schools gearing up
Even if schools know which phase their staff will be in, it may be unclear when that phase will commence.
“We have limited knowledge at this point,” Burke Royster, superintendent of Greenville County Schools in South Carolina, told ABC News on Wednesday. “We have a general idea of the priority.”
“There’s extremely limited information and knowledge about the vaccine itself,” Angela Horrison-Collier, director of student services for Clayton County Public Schools in Georgia, told ABC News on Wednesday. “The guidance for it is changing daily, based upon what’s happening by the developers, and how it will be distributed as a whole.”
Utah Gov. Herbert said Thursday that he expects teachers will be able to start vaccination by the end of December or the first part of January. Colorado puts its phase 2, which includes teachers, in the spring.
As schools await additional guidance, they’re preparing and looking to work with their local health officials to help distribute vaccines.
Horrison-Collier said that their schools — which have been operating remotely since March — could serve as possible drive-thru sites, like it has in the past for the flu vaccine.
Royster and Lubelfeld also are looking into having their districts serve as vaccination sites.
“I made it clear with our local county officials that we will yield our property, our campuses, anything to aid and increase the chances of getting the vaccinations into people’s arms,” Lubelfeld said. “We’re used to logistics — we do pickup and drop-off every day.”
Vaccinations likely won’t mean a complete return to normal in the classroom. Royster anticipates his school district will be able to increase the number of days students are in person, particularly for high schoolers, who are currently on campus two days a week if they elected in-person learning. A vaccine may also help with staffing, he said.
“One of our big challenges right now is making sure we have enough employees to provide the appropriate level of supervision,” he said. “Because another challenge during this pandemic has been we have far fewer substitute teachers than we normally have.”
Horrison-Collier expects their schools will employ measures like face coverings and social distancing, in addition to vaccination.
“We don’t know the overall impact that the vaccine will have,” she said. “It may increase some level of comfort for individuals coming back into the schoolhouse. But we know all of those things that we’re putting in place to mitigate COVID-19 will still be important.”
Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.