With teachers next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, some in Anchorage want to postpone face-to-face instruction

Attendees to a vaccination clinic prepare to receive their Moderna Covid-19 vaccination at one of the stations set up at the Anchorage School District Education Center Jan. 06, 2021. (Robert DeBerry/Anchorage School District)

Teachers in Anchorage are asking the district to delay a return to in-person learning until they become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The district intends to begin a phased return to classrooms Jan. 19.

The state’s vaccine allocation committee departed from national recommendations, opting to vaccinate Alaskans over 65 ahead of some essential workers. That means Alaska teachers under 65 will have to wait longer for vaccinations.

Teachers are part of the essential worker category included in the second tier of Phase 1b of the state’s vaccination program.

Anchorage Education Association President Corey Aist said it makes sense to adjust the district’s plan to align with the state’s vaccination timeline for educators, especially for those he said are being forced to go back to the classroom.

“Those are the most concerning to me, those who might have conditions, who are anxious about the additional exposure to COVID-19,” Aist said. “We believe that it would be in everybody’s best interest — students, families and educators — to have that broader face-to-face learning timeline coincide with vaccination distributions for educators.”

The state’s tiered plan for vaccinating essential workers indicates the following distribution plan for educators and school staff:

  • Tier 2: Teachers 50 years and older
  • Tier 3: Teachers under 50 with two or more high-risk health conditions
  • Tier 4: All other teachers

Several teachers testified at a school board meeting Tuesday night opposing the district’s reopening plan. Kayla Page, a kindergarten teacher at Northwood Elementary, said teachers have limited options if they don’t want to go back to the classroom.

“I know of teachers who have serious health concerns, who have tried to apply for medical leave, and have been denied,” she said. “If you’re a teacher and you feel unsafe about returning face-to-face, if you don’t want to risk your life, or the lives of your family or your children, your only option is to really resign. And this is heartbreaking.”

There is no timetable yet listed on the state’s vaccine availability website for when people included in Tier 2 and lower will be vaccinated.

Aist said the district should wait until that timeline and more information about vaccine availability for teachers comes out before a blanket return to the classroom, while teachers who want to return can volunteer to do so.

“It would be a shame, it would be a travesty, to go back to a face-to-face learning mode, [for example] two weeks before educators are able to get vaccinated, and that ends up putting educators at risk, potentially actually contracting COVID-19,” Aist said. “It just seems like we’re so close.”

“ASD continues to lean forward with its plan to bring its youngest students back into schools beginning January 19,” district spokesman Alan Brown said by email.

Jennifer Patronas, the district’s health care services director, said the first round of vaccinations for district staff will begin Wednesday, including any nurses who have not yet been vaccinated, some special education staff, and staff and community members over 65. The district has about 2000 vaccines, Patronas said.

Patronas said the district continues to increase its COVID testing capabilities, currently offering testing at 11 sites in schools, and at each of the four school-based health centers. The district has also obtained two rapid testing machines, Patronas said.

Ahead of the school start, Patronas encouraged any families or district staff planning to return to the classroom to get tested next week, so they’ll know if they’ve contracted COVID before returning to school.

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