Kentucky is expected to finish administering the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to all K-12 teachers and school staff who want it this week—potentially making the commonwealth the first to complete the initial round of teacher vaccinations.
At least 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have made some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine. But according to Education Week’s research and Gov. Andy Beshear’s own estimates, Kentucky is the furthest along with vaccinating that group.
More than 85,000 public and private school teachers and support staff in the Bluegrass State voluntarily received their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. A spokesman for the governor’s office said every educator who wanted to be vaccinated will have received their first dose this week, although a spokeswoman for the state’s education department wasn’t able to confirm that every district had finished by Friday.
Even so, a majority of educators in one state being vaccinated constitutes a watershed moment in the pandemic, as policymakers are working furiously to try to determine the best way to safely reopen all school buildings. Vaccines have been held up by many as a major piece of the puzzle.
Beshear, a Democrat, said in a press briefing Feb. 3 that this milestone means all schools in the commonwealth could open for in-person instruction by March 1, while still providing a virtual option for students. His office is working with the Kentucky education department to create guidance for schools, which will include requirements on social distancing measures, universal masking, and proper ventilation.
“Because of the vaccinations, I think we’re going to have more flexibility to do more than other states while the people in the building are safe,” Beshear said. “Watching our educators get the vaccines—every one of them said, ‘This is going to help me get back in the classroom with students.’ We’re going to work on making that happen.”
Eddie Campbell, the president of the Kentucky Education Association, said it will still be critical to have safety measures in place since students probably won’t be vaccinated this school year. No COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for children younger than 16, although pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna are in the process of testing vaccines in children as young as 12, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said a vaccine could be approved for students as young as 1st grade by September.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that states should prioritize teachers for vaccination, but that vaccinations are not a prerequisite for reopening schools.
Even so, Kentucky educators are excited about being inoculated, Campbell said. “It is that stress-reliever—they understand the vaccine isn’t a cure-all because students aren’t going to be vaccinated, but at least they know they have that extra layer [of protection] that’s going to help them get back in the classroom,” he said.
At a press briefing on Jan. 22, Beshear said prioritizing teachers in the vaccine line was “the right thing to do” for students’ social-emotional and academic growth, to get parents back to work more fully, and to protect educators who “have more day-to-day interaction and contact when they are in person than virtually any other profession that’s out there.”
“This is going to help us safely get our kids back in school faster than just about any other state,” Beshear continued, “and it’s going to allow us to do it without risking the health of those that come in to serve those children.”
When vaccines were first offered for educators, Roderick Pack, a history teacher, was quick to raise his hand. His 88-year-old grandmother lives with him, so he felt like he “could not go back in good conscience” until he was vaccinated, because it might put her health at risk.
His wife, also an educator, got the shot, too. The process—a drive-through vaccination in a stadium parking lot—was easy, said Pack, who teaches at Ballard High School in Louisville, which has been all remote. He’s now waiting for his second dose.
Once he’s fully vaccinated, Pack is eager to get back to the classroom. “My kids need me, and it’s not even just the academic component,” he said. His students have found the pandemic difficult and stressful. “You can’t truly build these kids back up on a screen. I can see the ones that I’m losing more and more daily.”
Some refuse to get vaccinated
The Louisville Courier Journal reported in mid-January that Beshear said about 70 percent of K-12 personnel in the state had agreed to take the vaccine, but he said others might change their minds as more people take it.
“It’s obviously an individual choice, but I’m glad a lot of teachers are taking advantage of the vaccine,” said Eva Stone, the manager of district health services for Jefferson County Public Schools, which includes Louisville. There are a variety of reasons that some educators may not choose to be vaccinated, she said, but added, “The basic math is that the more people that are immunized, the less risk there is to others.”
But for employees who refused to take the vaccine, the Kentucky education department has said school districts will not be required to offer them alternative or virtual work assignments.
A previous executive order mandated school districts to provide an alternative or virtual work assignment to any educator who is highrisk for serious illness due to COVID-19 and requests accommodation. The list of risk factors includes obesity, diabetes, and being 65 years old or older.
But that requirement ends once the eligible employee is a week past receiving their second dose. And if educators opted out of receiving the vaccine, they will no longer be entitled to accommodation.
Still, “districts have an interest in keeping as many staff as possible healthy,” Campbell said. Since districts will be required to offer a remote option for students whose parents choose to keep them home, Campbell expects that districts will accommodate staff requests as much as possible for remote work.
Also, exceptions will be made for educators who decline the vaccine based on recommendations from the CDC or FDA. But those recommendations will likely only apply to a small number of educators—namely, those who have had an immediate allergic reaction to any ingredient in a COVID-19 vaccine in the past or who are allergic to polyethylene gycol or polysorbate.
Districts should consult with their legal counsel if an employee declines to take the vaccine for religious reasons or has a disability that requires accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the department said.
Meanwhile, early-childhood educators, many of whom have worked in person throughout the pandemic, are still waiting for their chance to be vaccinated. Kentucky is one of five states to have prioritized K-12 teachers over child-care providers. Child-care workers will be included in the next phase of the state’s vaccine rollout, which Beshear said is expected to start soon.