Delaware teachers say vaccines are needed to safely reopen schools, yet some are unsure
Paul Sedacca’s third graders know the drill.
During lunch and breakfast, his class follows a strict “bite, cover, chew” policy. Masks down to take a bite of their food, then back over their mouths as they chew and talk with their classmates.
Sedacca and his colleagues at McVey Elementary School in Christina School District strive to keep the school as clean as possible. But no matter how strict the building is about COVID-19 precautions, he said he still doesn’t feel safe in an “imperfect environment.”
Getting the vaccine would change that, he said.
But not every school employee is as willing to get the vaccine. According to a survey of Delaware teachers and school staff, 70% of employees plan on getting vaccinated. Another 16% said they were unsure, and 12% said no. The survey obtained by Delaware Online/The News Journal was conducted in early January by the state Department of Education.
In total, 16,551 people responded to the survey, which was given to every employee of Delaware public, charter and private schools. School leaders were even encouraged to share the survey with contractors who work in school buildings.
The numbers vary by school district, offering a glimpse into how school staff – and to an extent, surrounding communities – feel about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
In Brandywine School District, 82% of teachers and staff said yes, they did want the vaccine.
On the opposite end of the state in Seaford, 51% said yes, and 24.6% said no. The rest were unsure.
Federal and state officials are urging people to get the vaccine, saying that it is the best way to protect oneself and others from being infected with the coronavirus and is a step toward ending the pandemic.
Still, many are hesitant to receive the vaccine. In a recent state survey, about 10% of residents said they would not receive the vaccine, with one of the top concerns being that it was developed too quickly.
“We know there are some of our members who are not interested, and that is their personal choice,” said Stephanie Ingram, president of the Delaware State Education Association, the union representing teachers. “We just want to make sure that those who want it can get it. If folks decide that the vaccine is not in their best interest, we can’t force them to get it.”
Teachers unions across the country continue advocating for schools to go back to virtual learning until teachers can be vaccinated. In a survey of Red Clay teachers union members, 83% of respondents said that in-person learning should be put on hold until after staff members have been able to get both doses of the vaccine.
Of the union’s 1,219 members, 70% responded to the survey. But Red Clay and Delaware’s other 18 school districts have all resumed in-person learning, with occasional building or class closures when too many staff members need to quarantine.
“There is so much out of our control,” said Dorothy Webber, a fourth grade teacher at Linden Hill Elementary in Pike Creek. “If I get a vaccine that they’re telling me is going to protect me, then that is something that I can control. I can sign up for the vaccine and protect myself. I have to focus on what I can control.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that schools can reopen without teachers being vaccinated, most recently in its updated guidance released Feb. 12. Making masks mandatory in schools, maintaining at least 6 feet of social distancing and splitting classes into cohorts to reduce potential exposures will do a lot.
White House officials have emphasized prioritizing teachers for vaccination, but have not answered whether vaccines are necessary for teacher safety in the classroom.
The state is on its fourth week of vaccinating teachers and staff. By the end of this week, 4,000 educators and staff members will have received their first shot, with another 1,200 getting their second, said Alison May, spokesperson for the Department of Education.
Starting Jan. 26, teachers registered online in droves to receive the vaccine, but the department isn’t sure how many actually registered – of the more than 16,000 responses, many included duplicate entries.
Each week, 1,200 teachers are randomly selected for vaccine appointments. The department manually filters out duplicates from its weekly vaccine lottery results, May said, to ensure all available slots are filled.
The main challenge so far is when people miss their invites, either because they didn’t check their email in time or because the message went to their spam folder.
Many people entered personal email addresses, rather than official state email addresses, so the department can’t control whether messages get flagged as spam, May said.
In the meantime, some teachers have been able to get shots through pharmacies. But most have found themselves in the position of waiting without a clear timeline.
“I know they’re prioritizing getting the teachers the vaccine,” Sedacca said. “But I’m still waiting. We’re just waiting for this magical email and invitation that will hopefully show up at some point.”
Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.