In almost 40 years of teaching, Deborah St. John, a high school English teacher in Central Florida, has to face a pandemic and a decision on whether to get the new COVID vaccine.
Administrators have been “bending over backwards” to help keep her school safe, she said, but in St. John’s eyes, she wants to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible.
“It would relieve a lot of stress since I have seen students and fellow teachers either come down with COVID, or become quarantined,” she told the Florida Phoenix. “I keep having the horrible feeling of playing dodgeball with death.”
St. John is one of many Florida educators grappling with whether they should take the vaccine when it becomes available.
Dashaun Mckenzie, a high school math teacher in Northwest Florida, said that the COVID vaccine “doesn’t mean anything to me, least not for this school year…I expect the state to use it as an excuse to send students back before it’s deemed safe, and for the school year to continue to be as chaotic as it started.”
Meanwhile, Beth Bigness, a middle school science teacher in Leon County, said, “I usually trust vaccines and I get mine always, but unless it’s mandated, I won’t be the first in line to get the COVID vaccine.”
Those comments from the three teachers reflect the various attitudes about a vaccine that is still in the initial phases and how it might be distributed to the massive school workforce.
The Florida Education Association, a statewide teacher union, has urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to “prioritize” PreK-12 and higher education employees in the state’s vaccination plan. The union posted a letter earlier this week on the FEA Twitter page, addressing the union’s concerns to the governor.
“Our teachers and staff have been on the front lines of the response to the pandemic by continuing operations and ensuring our children still have all their vital needs met; it is only appropriate that we would be prioritized when it comes to the vaccine effort.”
The FEA letter to DeSantis mentions that several Florida school employees have died from COVID-19 complications. Earlier this month, a Flagler County principal and former Volusia County superintendent died after contracting COVID, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
And a question arises: Could local school boards require its employees to get the COVID vaccine?
The answer is not clear yet.
Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said that those conversations are happening right now.
“I know there have been conversations,” Messina said. “I have not heard anyone come to a decision on that yet.” She said that she suspects those conversations will continue for several weeks.
“When local decision-makers…school board members or county commissioners or anyone, thinks about requiring anyone to do anything they have to consider multiple factors in that decision,” Messina said.
The issues cover union contracts, school board decisions and the governor’s statements showing that vaccines in Florida would not be mandated, among other concerns.
For example, similar to health care workers, the majority of educators in public schools are female, according to federal school data. And many of those women are pregnant or could become pregnant — and that could make the vaccine conservation more difficult.
In a weekly conference call this week with healthcare professionals and emergency managers, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees addressed vaccinations for women who are pregnant, according to a state spokeswoman.
“During this week’s call, he advised that, per recent CDC guidance, individuals who are pregnant should consult with their primary care provider prior to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine,” said Samantha Bequer, an agency press secretary who emailed responses to Phoenix questions.
Right now, Florida has allocated its current supply of vaccines to healthcare workers and residents at some long-term care facilities — not to teachers and higher education faculty.
DeSantis has said that as more vaccines come in, the next targeted demographics to receive vaccines are those in “our general 65 and up populations.” That means Florida’s K-12 teachers, higher education professors and other school-related personnel could be in that category, depending on their ages.
Keep in mind, Florida students are required to receive certain vaccinations in order to attend school, unless there is a health concern or a religious exemption.
COVID vaccinations are not yet available to children under 16. That said, some high school students, such as juniors and seniors, could potentially get the vaccines.
Some of these details will clear up as more vaccine doses come into Florida, but as of now, there are still many uncertainties about access to the vaccine for Florida educators.
“I do believe the vaccine is a game-changer,” FEA President Andrew Spar told the Phoenix. “There’s still going have to be safety precautions, but I think it will alleviate a lot of the stress and the pressure that people are feeling right now.”
St. John, the teacher in Central Florida, told the Phoenix that she does not expect she will have access to the COVID vaccine anytime soon.
She said that: “I do think health care workers and nursing home residents should have first access, for obvious reasons. My hope is that teachers would be next along with police, firefighters, prison guards, prisoners, and government servants that are in constant contact with the public.”
Florida Phoenix reporter Laura Cassels contributed to this report.