The vaccine landscape for teachers shifted dramatically the day after President Joe Biden announced a federal push to get all teachers their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March.
At least six states announced on Tuesday evening or Wednesday that they would begin prioritizing at least some school staff for the vaccine, although some of the announcements were already in the works and some will not go into effect immediately. And although Biden had said his initiative would start the week of March 8, the CVS pharmacy chain has already begun allowing teachers across the country—including in states that haven’t officially marked teachers as eligible—to start making vaccine appointments.
Now, educators can either qualify for the vaccine through their state or through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which Biden is using to provide enough vaccine supply to states to fast-track school staff and child-care workers. Educators will be able to sign up for an appointment at more than 9,000 pharmacy locations across the country, regardless of where they fall in their state’s vaccine line.
Prior to Biden’s announcement, teachers in 34 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had already been eligible for the vaccines, and some states, like Kentucky, have finished giving at least the first vaccine dose to every educator who wanted one. But in some of the remaining states, teachers weren’t expected to become eligible for the vaccine until later this month.
“It’s a total turnaround,” said Amanda Hulse, an elementary English-as-a-second-language specialist in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Texas has required schools to offer in-person instruction since last fall, but until today hadn’t said when teachers would be able to get the vaccine. But in response to Biden’s directive, the state’s department of health and human services issued a letter to vaccine providers declaring that all school staff are now eligible for the vaccine.
On Wednesday morning, before that announcement, Hulse saw on her Twitter feed that CVS was allowing Texas educators to make an appointment for a vaccine. There were no appointments available near her, but she said just knowing that she has the chance to get a vaccine soon is a relief.
“It feels great,” Hulse said. “It feels like we might have a chance of continuing to be safe in our schools, and it feels like at least someone sees the contribution that teachers and child-care workers have been making.”
Lisa Ellis, a journalism teacher, saw the effect of Biden’s order immediately. By Wednesday morning, five of her colleagues at Blythewood High School in South Carolina were able to schedule vaccine appointments at CVS, even though the state isn’t making educators officially eligible for the shots until March 8, she said.
“If you’re going to say we need students back in person five days a week, then you also need to prioritize school-based personnel to make that happen,” said Ellis, who has pushed for the K-12 vaccine priority as president of the activist group SC for Ed.
Biden’s directive ensures that school staff in all states—regardless of their prioritization plans—will be able to get the vaccine at eligible pharmacies, said Kate Grusich, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman, in an email. The CDC will work with states that have not yet included educators in their prioritization plan to make sure they have the support needed to make this change, she added.
“This program will provide a pathway to quickly get educational and child-care workers vaccinated and help with efforts to quickly and safely reopen schools,” Grusich said.
The CDC has previously said that vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening school buildings, but that teachers should be prioritized for the vaccine. Many teachers have been fearful to go back into school buildings without being inoculated against COVID-19.
Yet limited vaccine supply thus far has hindered some states’ efforts to vaccinate educators.
In Missouri, for example, Gov. Mike Parson announced Feb. 25 that all K-12 staff would be prioritized starting March 15 (some K-12 staff qualify for vaccines already because they’re 65 or older). But Chris Gaines, the superintendent of the Mehlville school district near St. Louis, isn’t optimistic it will make much difference in vaccinating his 1,400 staff members.
There’s a backlog of 100,000 people from previous priority groups who are waiting for appointments in the St. Louis area, he said.
Biden announced on Tuesday that the vaccine supply shortages will be alleviated by the Merck pharmaceutical company’s agreement to help produce the vaccine created by drug maker Johnson & Johnson. There will be enough COVID-19 vaccine supply for all American adults by the end of May, Biden said.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is just one shot, while the other U.S.-authorized vaccines, produced by Pfizer and Moderna, require two shots a few weeks apart. Educators may receive any of the three vaccines at a participating pharmacy through Biden’s initiative, Grusich said.
States move quickly in response to Biden directive
Soon after Biden announced his directive, Washington state said while it had planned to vaccinate school staff and child-care workers “in a matter of weeks,” it would immediately make educators eligible.
“The good news is that schools will be able to open, and we are pleased that teachers will be back in the classroom,” said Gov. Jay Inslee in a statement. “This should give educators more confidence to return to in-person learning.”
The day after Biden’s announcement, Maine changed its vaccination plan to include school staff and child-care providers, too. An estimated 36,400 school staff became newly eligible. (More than 10,000 school staff older than 60 were already eligible based on the previous age-tiered prioritization plan.)
“I share the president’s desire to vaccinate school staff and child-care workers as quickly as possible, just as I want to see all Maine people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said Gov. Janet Mills in a statement.
Also on Wednesday, Massachusetts announced that K-12 school staff and child-care workers would be eligible for the vaccine March 11. Pennsylvania said teachers could begin registering for the vaccine, although vaccinations are not expected to begin until between March 10-13. (Philadelphia teachers have already been eligible, as the city is a separate vaccine jurisdiction.)
West Virginia and Florida are among the states that have taken an age-based approach to vaccinations, but new groups of educators became eligible Wednesday. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced that teachers ages 40 to 50 could now be vaccinated. (West Virginia teachers older than 50 became eligible Jan. 7.) Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded vaccine eligibility to school staff age 50 or older.
Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of Orange County, Fla., schools, said she’d hoped that the governor would make all K-12 employees eligible, and her district’s medical advisory board sent the governor a letter Wednesday asking for that expansion. Of the district’s 25,000 employees, only 9,500 are 50 and older. Florida’s school districts have been required to offer in-person learning since last fall.
She is happy about Biden’s order, calling it an “incredible reverberating mandate” that could exert pressure on state and local officials to prioritize all K-12 staff for vaccine protection. Vaccine priority “absolutely has to include bus drivers, case workers, administrators, front office workers,” she said. “We’re all right there in the school setting.”
Today, many of her employees are frantically searching the websites of major pharmacy chains like CVS to see if new blocks of appointments are opening up for them in the wake of Biden’s announcement, she said.
“I’m telling you, word gets out and spreads like wildfire,” Jenkins said.
A CVS spokesman said in an email that the drug store will work with the federal government to vaccinate educators in 17 states. Some of those states have already made teachers eligible, but others—including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island—had not.
Meanwhile, Indiana has not revised its vaccine priorities in response to Biden’s directive. The state is taking an age-based approach instead, lowering eligibility to people 50 and older, with plans to lower that threshold again later this month to those 40 and older.
Scott Wyndham, the superintendent of the Avon Community school district, in Avon, Indiana, said that “would cover a good chunk” of his staff.
But his staff members of all ages will soon have access to the vaccine through another channel: the federal pharmacy program. State officials said they’d provide links on their own website to sign up for that program, Wyndham said.
Between the state lowering its age threshold and the federal channel opening up, “I certainly feel like we are heading in the right direction” to get large numbers of vaccines into K-12 staffers’ arms, Wyndham said.
Catherine Gewertz, Senior Contributing Writer contributed to this article.