Georgia ‘Teach In’ makes case for vaccines and delayed return for teachersTristan Sims, 8, draws some chalk art during the Georgia Coalition for a Safe Return to School ‘Teach-In’ in downtown Atlanta on Saturday, Feb. 20. Photo by Dean Hesse.
This story has been updated.
Editor’s note: On Thursday, Feb. 25, Gov. Brian Kemp expanded the current COVID-19 eligibility to Pre-K through 12th grade teachers. This story was published on Feb. 21.
By Sara Amis, contributor
Atlanta, GA — Georgia Coalition for a Safe Return to School members and speakers held a “teach in” event Feb. 20 near the State Superintendent’s office in downtown Atlanta.
Speaker topics included criticism of the current state of readiness of school districts for a return to in person schooling, advocacy for teachers to receive the vaccine, tips for reducing the spread COVID-19 in school, and education about the virus plus the possible long term effects of the disease.
The event was held simultaneously in person while socially distanced and virtually via livestream, mirroring the experience of students and teachers in a hybrid learning situation. The use of Nearpod, an online interactive learning tool, and the fact that some speakers were pre-recorded while others were live, further allowed attendees to experience what virtual and hybrid schooling is currently like.
Currently, an increased push for school districts that have not already done so to return to in person schooling is being met with resistance. Teachers say now that vaccines are available, they should be vaccinated before they return.
Some states have prioritized teachers in vaccine distribution, but Georgia is not among them. In response to a letter from eleven superintendents and another letter from several metro school boards sent in January requesting that teachers be put into the “1A” group for vaccinations, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp responded that there simply weren’t enough vaccines to do that without delaying vaccines for other priority groups such as seniors, health care workers, and first responders.
Neighboring Alabama is currently vaccinating teachers and some Georgia teachers have driven there for vaccines. Alabama is currently receiving 60,000-70,000 vaccines per week for its population of 4.9 million and cannot easily absorb an additional 400,000 of Georgia’s teachers and school staff, even if it were practical for them to drive there. Georgia is currently receiving around 170,000 doses per week for its population of 10.6 million.
The Centers for Disease Control recently released new guidance for schools using color coded metrics based on community spread and positivity rates. However, metro Atlanta schools including Atlanta Public Schools, City Schools of Decatur, and the DeKalb County School District remain in orange or red zones. Community spread in DeKalb is currently 295 per 100,000 over two weeks, and the positivity rate is 7.2% For community spread levels above 100 per 100,000 over a period of two weeks, the CDC recommends fully virtual schooling unless a district can strictly implement all mitigation strategies.
DCSD teachers in recent weeks have argued that the district is unable to implement mitigation strategies, saying that ventilation in some schools was antiquated and inadequate before the pandemic struck and has not been upgraded. DCSD’s superintendent, Cheryl Watson-Harris, has said that schools have been sanitized and teachers and staff are being provided with appropriate PPE. However, some teachers are reporting that they have not received PPE and that their rooms show evidence of having not been cleaned.
Speakers at the event echoed some complaints of the Organization of DeKalb Educators, stating that for various reasons standards set out by the CDC were not being adhered to by districts.
Dr. Jonathan Crymes, a physics teacher who took early retirement in September from Gwinnett County Schools, said that most school ventilation systems are “lowest bidder” standard with MERV 5 filters that will reduce dust and lint but not viruses. He went on to say that CDC studies have indicated that students will remove their masks when no adults are in view.
Crymes and other speakers pointed out that the CDC studies that show lower spread in schools than in the community were done in a rural Wisconsin school system with very different conditions than any metro Atlanta school system.
Anthony Downer, a high school World History teacher, said that following CDC recommendations takes money that many local school systems do not have. He also stated that because of the evidence that Black people are more likely to contract COVID-19 and more likely to be hospitalized or die, a return to in person learning puts Black students, staff, and communities at disproportionate risk. Downer stated that in alignment with CDC and World Health Organization recommendations, the coalition was demanding that school districts enforce mask wearing at all times, social distancing in all spaces, frequent handwashing, high quality ventilation, contact tracing and testing, and vaccinations for those who want them.
Additionally, Downer stated that school districts should have community task forces setting consistent standards for school closing and opening policies based on community spread, and that teachers should have the option of working from home.
“We are here to uphold science and facts over politics and propaganda,” said Downer.
Jana McCrary, a high school Biology and AP Environmental Science teacher, offered a lesson on viruses. McCrary described how new variants of viruses emerge and pointed out that uncontrolled spread in the population makes new variants more likely and may lead to existing remedies, including vaccines, becoming less effective.
Dr. Amber Schmidtke, an assistant professor at Mercer School of Medicine and the author of regular updates on the pandemic in Georgia, and Ryan Proffitt, a high school Language Arts teacher who contracted COVID 19 last spring, discussed “long haul” post acute COVID 19 syndrome, and the fact that COVID 19 can cause disabling long term health problems even in young and healthy people who contract it.
Dr. Michelle “Kanika” Sims, a physician at Grady and a professor at Morehouse School of Medicine, spoke of the degree of trauma she has experienced as a front line health care worker and her urgent desire that no more needless deaths occur. “Now that a vaccine is available we have no business asking teachers to return until they are vaccinated,” said Sims.
Sims addressed vaccine reluctance especially in Black communities, saying that even she had felt it but realized her reaction was fear based rather than science based. “It’s a safe vaccine and it’s an effective vaccine,” said Sims.
“I know better than most that the realities of COVID are much more severe than any imaginary fear that I had about the vaccine,” added Sims.
Sims stated that she believes school districts are responsible for addressing disparities in health care. She feels that opening schools before teachers can be vaccinated shows either ignorance or disregard of the fact that Black communities are more vulnerable. Risks may be higher for Black students and staff than the community spread numbers indicate.
The CDC has stated that vaccinations are not required for a safe return to school, if mitigation strategies are followed. Many teachers have responded that mitigation strategies are not being followed strictly enough, and that they should be allowed to either stay virtual if they are at risk or get vaccinated.
WABE reported on Thursday that the governor is considering adding teachers to an expanded priority list for vaccines. However, until there are more vaccines available in Georgia, it’s unclear when teachers will be able to get them.
Last summer, the Trump administration declined to order an extra one hundred million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which would have been delivered this March. The Biden administration recently placed orders for an extra one hundred million doses each from both Pfizer and Moderna. Those vaccines will be delivered in regular increments through July of this year, and will be distributed to states for distribution according to population. Thus far increases in weekly vaccine shipments have been incremental. According to the Georgia Department of Public Health website, “Depending on vaccine supply allocations from the federal government, it may be weeks before additional providers will have vaccine available for quicker and more widespread distribution.”
Here are additional photos from Saturday’s event:
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