DUVAL COUNTY, Fla. — Members of Duval County's School Board sent a letter to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Friday asking for educators and school-related personnel to be prioritized in the next phase of vaccine distributions.
In the letter, Board Chair Elizabeth Andersen explains that in-person schooling is best for students and the community, but it is difficult to keep everyone healthy without the shots.
Andersen goes on to point out that DCPS has tragically lost two educators and a student just this month. "Providing priority access to vaccines for educators and school-related personnel ensures that our staff is healthy and confident to finish off the remainder of the school year in service to our children and communities," Andersen wrote.
According to an executive order by Gov. DeSantis, Phase 1 priority groups are the only ones eligible for a vaccine in Florida at this time. Those include frontline health care workers, residents and staff at long-term care facilities and people who are 65 and older.
Despite safety measures, the coronavirus has still impacted Duval County School District. Their dashboard shows 1,241 reported cases in Duval County Public Schools since school restarted in August, including about 500 in January alone. According to the dashboard, 397 of the cases are among staff while 844 cases are among students.
"We are coming into contact with children every day," said teacher Stacie Dern. "It almost seemed insane that we were not part of that first vaccination group.”
Dern is a 6th-grade teacher who says she feels safe with her mask on in class, but she thinks about the 'what if' every day. She says reopening schools in Florida was a priority for the governor but feels vaccinating teachers isn’t.
"The vaccination would definitely give us that extra layer or support and comfort because for some of us it’s not just the fear. It’s an underlying anxiety that inhibits our ability to do our jobs to the best of our ability," Dern said.
"This is a major concerns for thousands of us daily going into schools, is [going to school] safe?" asked Chris Guerrieri, a veteran special education teacher at Duval County Public Schools. "I believe they could be doing more like contact tracing, social distancing and testing for DHR [Duval Home Room] students."
Guerrieri said he appreciates the effort the district is putting in to keep teachers and students safe but was still critical of its timing.
"It took three Duval county school deaths for that to happen we should have been doing that in December," Guerrieri said.
"They’re on the frontlines," said school board member Darryl Willie. "When we were making decisions about opening up our state and our city, one of the first conversations was when are we going to open up schools."
State Representative Angie Nixon has heard the teachers' concerns and agrees school employees, including teachers, bus drivers and janitors, must be a priority to receive the vaccine.
"They should definitely be vaccinated they are essential workers and they take care of our kids," Rep. Nixon said. "They need to be a number one priority since they come in contact with our children."
State Representative Tracie Davis is another state lawmaker urging the state to prioritize school employees to receive the vaccine.
"Priority access to vaccines for educators and school related personnel ensures that our staff is healthy and confident to finish the school year," Rep. Davis explained.
On Friday, Gov. DeSantis spoke in Florida about several topics including the state of jobs in Florida. He says the state is gaining jobs partially because our schools and businesses are open.
"Florida is open," said DeSantis. "Our schools are open. Parents have the ability to send their kid in person."
Florida lawmakers are considering HB227, a bill that addressing COVID-19 and education. If it passes, the bill will ensure that CDC Guidelines and followed and enforced. The bill will also not penalize schools that fail to make the state assessment goals due to the pandemic.
Willie says since there is a mandate to keep schools open, the state should also protect those working there.
Willie added the board is advocating for all school personnel to feel safe inside these four walls.
“One way to show that appreciation is to give them the opportunity to be able to roll up their sleeve and get that vaccine if possible," Willie said.
He says the board has worked with the City of Jacksonville to make teachers who fit into the eligibility requirements of 65 and older a priority when the city received vaccine doses. Willie says they were able to help get more than 300 personnel vaccinated.
Read the full letter below.
Dear Governor DeSantis,
We would first like to acknowledge the challenge that this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has thrust upon you during your first term in office. The difficult decisions and tasks of guiding our great state through these daunting times is certainly unparalleled. We recognize that any plan for vaccination must prioritize our most vulnerable citizens while also safeguarding the essential workers that make up the critical infrastructure of our communities.
County by County and neighborhood by neighborhood, it has been made clear that one of the most foundational elements of the critical infrastructure in our communities is the classroom. Duval County Public Schools worked quickly to ensure that our schools had appropriate risk mitigation measures and protocols in place so that schools could safely welcome students in the fall. Since then, we have worked to maintain transparency and trust with students and families bringing more students into our buildings from remote learning each quarter. Even prior to Emergency Order No. 2020-EO-07, school Administrators were monitoring students’ progress and reaching out to families of students struggling with distance learning.
We recognize the many reasons that brick-and-mortar education best serves children and the community at large. We also find ourselves challenged to ensure the health and wellbeing of students and staff as the population in our buildings increases while community spread of the virus rises to new highs. Just this month, we have tragically lost two invaluable educators and a student.
We all understand that Schools are essential to the academic, social, and emotional needs of our children as well as the economic infrastructure of our communities. Our educators are trusted members of our community and provide supports well beyond academic standards. They have been working overtime to meet the needs of students both in person and online while also managing their own fears and taking care of their own families. This has been a very challenging year for us all, but our educators are simply exhausted by the burdens that they carry. For these reasons we respectfully request that you include K-12 educators and school-related personnel as a priority in the next phase of vaccine distribution.
Providing priority access to vaccines for educators and school-related personnel ensures that our staff is healthy and confident to finish off the remainder of the school year in service to our children and communities. Offering them some relief through the vaccine will not only have a positive impact on the safety and in-person education of our children, but it will also help bolster community confidence in the vaccine, enhance the effectiveness of our workforce, and demonstrate how much our state leaders value the essential role that they play.
On behalf of the Duval County School Board, we thank you for your time and consideration of this request. We appreciate that you are working hard to make the best decisions for Floridians based on vaccine availability as the distribution continues to move forward.
Elizabeth Andersen, MS, LMHC
School Board Chair Duval County School Board