Some Lawrence educators may not be fully vaccinated before schools return to all in-person learning

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

When Melissa Johnson received her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Wednesday, she was surprised, she said.

She was finally feeling some relief amid a global pandemic that has disrupted much of her work as a teacher at Lawrence High School and put her life at risk as an essential worker.

“I’m really happy,” Johnson told the Journal-World a few hours after she received the vaccine, adding that she was taken aback about “how emotional” she became.

Johnson, who teaches English at LHS, was one of many school district staff members whom Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and the school district are racing to get vaccinated before schools return to fully in-person learning later this month.

While it appears most of the district’s faculty and staff who have been working in person this school year will have received both doses of a vaccine before the district moves to a fully in-person learning model, there are some who may be asked to return to onsite work or teach in classrooms with more students before they are fully vaccinated.

George Diepenbrock, a spokesman for the health department, said that based on the 21-day period between Pfizer doses, the department estimates it will conclude the second phase of the state’s vaccine rollout program, which includes K-12 staff, by March 31. That is a few days after the district’s secondary school buildings return to fully in-person learning on March 29.

Johnson said she expected to receive her second Pfizer dose by March 26. That is days before her classroom increases the number of in-person students. But if she was scheduled to receive the second dose after March 29, she would have been nervous about the return, she said.

“I’ve been nervous at every step, and if I hadn’t been vaccinated before (the return) I would have felt really unsafe,” she said.

However, not all educators are in the same boat. Bryan Lloyd, a visual arts teacher at Free State High School, said he also received the vaccine on Wednesday and he’s not sure when he’ll receive the second dose. But if he receives it after March 29, he’s not worried about returning to class because he thinks his students’ education is more important.

That’s a sentiment that was shared by the school board leadership. Board President Kelly Jones said the pandemic has made it clear how important schools are to the social safety net for children and their families, which she said was a compelling reason to return to in-person learning soon.

Board Vice President Erica Hill also said the district needed to move forward with the best interests of students in mind.

“I have confidence in our teachers, staff and administration and our ability to continue to provide safe learning environments,” Hill said.

A return to normal learning models is right around the corner.

Lawrence faculty and staff have been informed they are expected to return to working onsite on March 15, unless they are teaching fully remote classes or have been approved to work remotely for ADA considerations, district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said.

That aligns with the district’s plan to have elementary schools resume fully in-person learning on March 15 and secondary schools return to fully in-person learning on March 29. Students who chose to learn fully remotely this year will continue to use that learning model. The district had been using a hybrid learning model since November, and had used a fully remote learning method prior to that.

Along with announcing those plans, the district also created a vaccine rollout plan for its staff. Superintendent Anthony Lewis said at a February school board meeting that the second phase of the rollout that focused on in-person staff had begun. By Feb. 25, more than 1,000 of the district’s 1,900 staff members had received the first dose of a vaccine.

Additionally, Boyle said on Thursday that all of the district’s staff who had signed up for the vaccine had received an opportunity to get the first dose. And as of Friday afternoon, about 78% of them had received it, according to the district’s vaccine dashboard.

There’s also a possibility that a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine provides some security on its own. According to an Associated Press report, a study of the vaccine showed it was 62% effective at preventing severe disease after just one shot.

“Even after one dose we can see very high effectiveness in prevention of death,” Vanderbilt University’s Dr. Buddy Creech said of the results.

However, the district’s dashboard shows about 21% of the staff had not responded to the interest form. That may be because they have received a vaccination through other avenues, or they do not want to get the vaccine. Because some may not want the vaccine, Boyle noted the district couldn’t say for sure all of the staff would be vaccinated before fully in-person learning resumed.

The district does not track data for how many staff have received the second vaccine because those are being handled by the health department. Boyle said there may also be several factors as to why a staff member may not get the second dose before March 29, such as the county’s vaccine supply or scheduling complications.

But Boyle said the district was aware staff could still be nervous about increasing the number of people in school buildings.

“We understand that some of our staff members have safety concerns about returning to work onsite,” Boyle said. “The district is committed to providing a working environment that is safe. We are encouraged by the downward trend in COVID spread in the community and the school district, successful adherence to our in-school safety measures and the vaccination process.”

While focusing on the importance of student benefit, Jones said she too was aware of safety concerns. But despite those concerns, she noted the COVID-19 environment in Douglas County has improved in recent weeks. As more people continue to receive vaccinations, local metrics for cases of the virus continue to fall.

As of Thursday, Douglas County’s school virus guidance had been in the green tier, which calls for fully in-person learning, for a fourth straight week. Meanwhile, the district’s own guidance, which is somewhat more cautious, is on the verge of moving to green as well.

As the Journal-World has reported, if metrics improve again, the district’s guidance could drop to the green tier on March 11 just in time for elementary schools to return to fully in-person learning as scheduled the following Monday. The district’s green tier also calls for fully in-person learning.

While the improving metrics are likely related to the vaccine rollout, the green tier could have changed the learning method to fully in-person even if teachers had not been vaccinated.

Lloyd, in his 30s, said he understands that educators who are older and more vulnerable to COVID-19 may be nervous about more students in the classrooms. But he said he feels fine about being in the classroom regardless of whether he’s fully vaccinated.

In fact, he said he would have supported returning to fully in-person learning before he got the first dose of a vaccine. As a teacher of ceramics, his students do not get much out of virtual learning and he has routinely asked students to come to class in person if their parents allowed it, he said.

He also said he’s been comfortable with the district’s mitigation efforts, noting that wearing masks in school buildings appears to work very effectively.

“I’m not scared, and mitigation works,” he said. “I feel like if the guy sacking my groceries is an essential worker, (we) teachers are essential workers too.”

Johnson said she too thought it was important to get back to a normal classroom, and she has been impressed with how students had responded to the mitigation efforts. But she said educators’ fears are not frivolous, noting that some teachers in the U.S. have died from the virus. She also said it seemed like the public unfairly believed that teachers should put their lives on the line for their jobs.

But despite those issues, she said she thought the district had done well providing mitigation and that many of her initial fears had not been realized.

“Sometimes I have worried we have pushed things too fast for the sake of normalcy, when it’s not normal,” Johnson said. “But I say that and it’s never as bad as I feared. I’ve been very pleased every step of the way with how seriously everyone has been taking it.”

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