“Our state’s teachers and support staff have faithfully risked their lives this year,” a letter says from Missouri’s 2017-2021 Teachers of the Year. It is addressed to Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams and it presses him to let teachers and support staff get their coronavirus vaccinations immediately.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson visits a St. Louis school on July 29, 2020 (file photo courtesy of the governor’s Flickr page)

The letter is signed by Darrion Cockrell of Lindbergh Schools, Melissa Grandel of the Fordland School District, Shelly Parks of Francis Howell in St. Charles, Beth Davey of Ritenour Schools, and Darbie Valenti Huff of the St. Joseph School District. Three of them say they have been infected with the virus and say all cases are from likely exposures at school.

Most Missouri schools have been operating at least partially in-person classes for months. According to Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) data, 27 of the state’s 551 public districts and charter schools are currently offering distanced learning only.

Under Missouri’s coronavirus vaccination plan, citizens currently eligible to get immunized include those in the health care field, first responders, long-term care patients and staff, individuals 65 years or older, and Missourians with certain health conditions. Teachers are eligible to get immunized now if they are 65 years or older or have health conditions that could put them at risk of developing COVID-19.

The next phase of the state’s plan will allow teachers, faculty, and staff in public, private, and nonprofit pre K-12 schools to get vaccinated. But that phase might not begin until April or so.

“We have stepped up to the challenge to meet the educational, social, and physical needs of students, families, and communities in every way possible. We have been thanked as heroes – and just as often have been accused of ‘not doing enough.’ And yet, we have continued to place the needs of our children as the first priorities. Imagine, then, the dismay and chagrin teachers feel in knowing that many of our state’s school employees with Phase 1B Tier 3 may not have access to the vaccine for several months. Therefore, depending on the region in which they teach and live, the current distribution plan may not provide teachers and support staff full viral protection before the end of this school year,” the letter says.

The teachers say they have concerns about addendums and lowered safety precautions they say many school districts are using.

“Many districts are no longer identifying close contacts if most individuals were presumably masked. Many districts are utilizing ‘modified’ quarantines in which exposed students are still in buildings. Many districts have abandoned research-backed guidelines of 6-foot distanced learning for the convenience of full classrooms. Few Missouri counties employ a mask mandate, and many schools are holding instruction without mask protocols. This indicates an even more pressing need for Missouri educators to receive higher prioritization to the vaccine,” they say.

According to the group, 26 states are vaccinating educators immediately, including seven of Missouri’s eight bordering states.

“Policy makers and community leaders have asked school buildings to be open. Missouri teachers and support staff are doing what has been asked of us. We asked that you do the right thing,” they say.

Missouri, along with every other U.S. state, has had a high demand for the vaccine but not enough vaccine to go around. In a recent legislative committee hearing about the state’s vaccine rollout, Dr. Williams said the state had to make some tough decisions about Missouri’s priority list.

During this month’s Missouri Board of Education meeting, State Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven said she shares the desire for teachers to be a priority. However, she said she also understands the way the state has set up its priority list.

“When that next tier opens, there may be communities who are called upon to prioritize their distribution and we are going to ask them to really think carefully about how do we make sure our teachers get in when they are eligible,” she said. “Additionally, we have a number of our teachers who are currently eligible because they are over 65 or have a pre-existing condition and we are encouraging them to seek that vaccination as quickly as they can.”

DESE spokeswoman Mallory McGowin said she wishes the next phase would launch earlier. She went on to say the vaccination is one layer of the state’s overall strategy to fight the virus.

“We’ve used that swiss cheese analogy – that we’re stacking layers of protection on top of one another like swiss cheese. And so there’s holes in every layer of protection, but the more layers you add, the more holes you cover up and better protect the students and staff members in your building,” she said.

The state has also emphasized the need for masking, handwashing, and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus but wearing a mask in public is not required. Instead, Gov. Mike Parson has left coronavirus-related restrictions up to local leaders. Safety measures within schools have also been local control decisions.

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