Education advocates push for early teacher vaccinations

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Education advocates are calling for teachers and other school staff to get priority in the national coronavirus vaccine rollout expected to start next week.

In New Mexico, where 17,500 doses are expected to be distributed, lawmakers are asking state health officials to include ‘frontline’ teachers.

Members of the Legislative Education Study Committee in a letter sent this week urged public health officials to put a select group of teachers on equal footing with healthcare workers and first responders for the first batch of vaccinations. The letter followed a call by Lt. Gov. Howie Morales for teachers to get priority access since the state's shift to online learning has left many students struggling.

Less ambitious pushes are being made in Indiana and Utah, where public schools have not across the board but based on local outbreaks amid the latest spike in COVID-19 cases.

In Indiana where schools are scheduled to reopen next month, Rep. Jim Banks (R-ID) called for school staff to be "second in line,” after healthcare workers but before the general public.

In Utah, schools opened this fall with in-person classes, online learning and, in some cases, a hybrid model. But a growing number of schools have experienced coronavirus outbreaks exceeding 15 cases which state officials say should trigger two weeks of remote learning.

Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that teachers and staff in K-12 schools would be moved to the “front of the line” to receive vaccines after frontline healthcare workers as soon as late December or early January.

“This will help minimize disruption for families at home,” said Herbert, a Republican. “And we hope to minimize the ping pong effect that’s happening with going online or in class or a combination of both.”

While early access to vaccines, especially for special education and K-3 teachers, could lead to a return to in-person classes for some students in New Mexico, it's expected to be many months before there would be enough doses for all teachers, much less all students.

A current statewide ban on most in-person learning is based on measures of community spread, not cases among those attending school.

Teachers in New Mexico are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because they are older on average, Trujillo and Stewart wrote in their letter. Around 25% of New Mexico teachers are , tied with Maine for the oldest educator workforce in the country.

Around 6% of New Mexico’s teachers and teaching assistants are 65 or older, according to an AP analysis of state education department data, putting them at even higher risk for complications if they become infected.

The National Education Association, a union that represents teachers nationwide, said educators should get priority for vaccines, but schools will still have to be vigilant given the expected delay in vaccines for children.

“Given that studies of the efficacy and safety of a COVID-19 vaccine for use in children lag behind the approval of vaccines for adults, there is likely to be a period of time during which there are high vaccination rates for staff in schools, but students may not yet be able to receive a vaccine,” the NEA said in a statement this month.

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Eppolito reported from Salt Lake City.

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Attanasio and Eppolito are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

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