MaryAnn Sansonetti-Wood, like so many other educators, has spent much of this school year frustrated and fearful.
She’s been teaching face-to-face since September, behind a cloth mask and a plexiglass barrier. Her middle school—part of a suburban district outside of Columbia, S.C.—transitioned from a hybrid model to four days a week of in-person learning in November, around the time COVID-19 cases in the area were spiking. And in February, as the new virus variants loomed, the district returned to a fully in-person schedule, meaning she began seeing her 115 students each day.
“I was really getting worried,” says Sansonetti-Wood, “because there are times in the last couple of months where up to about 20 percent of my students had either tested positive or were quarantined at one time.”
She rearranged her routines at home to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to her family. Every evening, she enters the house through the garage, where she takes off her shoes, sprays them with Lysol, removes and discards her clothes from the day and immediately showers. “I’m very methodical about it,” she says. She also now double masks, wearing a two-layer cloth covering over a KN95.
Sansonetti-Wood had been eager to get vaccinated, thinking that surely she’d be eligible by early February. But weeks passed and the governor of South Carolina had yet to provide any guidance.
Finally, last week, she got her chance: A friend let her know that North Carolina had opened up a bunch of new appointments and was welcoming South Carolina teachers for vaccinations. She went back and forth about it, then made the decision. She clicked the link and scheduled an appointment for two days later.
On Feb. 25, she drove one hour and 40 minutes to Gastonia, N.C., to get vaccinated, wondering the whole time if she would be turned away on site. But the experience transpired without a hitch. And as Sansonetti-Wood received a dose of the Pfizer vaccine, she found herself getting emotional.
She says she was thinking, “Maybe it won’t be so scary for me now,” to report in-person to school each day. “I spend the majority of my day, saying [to students], ‘Hey, cover your nose,’ and ‘Pull up your mask.’”
Sansonetti-Wood is one of countless educators who have felt they had to take matters into their own hands this year, in order to safely do their jobs. She crossed state lines to get the vaccine. Others have waited hours outside clinics and pharmacies to snag leftover doses. Still others have described on social media how they claim to be former smokers or, in some states, exceed a certain BMI to qualify. In these cases, the educators are desperate to bolster their defenses and add “another layer of protection” against a virus many are exposed to every day, says Sansonetti-Wood.
But under recent guidance from President Joe Biden, who announced on March 2 that he was using the “full authority of the federal government” to direct states to prioritize educators for the vaccine, Sansonetti-Wood may be among the last of educators who have to go to great lengths to secure a dose of the vaccine. Biden said his goal is for “every educator, school staff member [and] child care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March.”
At the time of Biden’s announcement, more than 30 states had already begun vaccinating at least some educators, but even those states’ policies varied, with some only vaccinating educators above a certain age and others vaccinating just K-12 teachers and staff.
Notably, Biden explicitly called out “child care workers” three times in his speech, showing his support for the recommendations outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which asks that states vaccinate all educators, including those who work with children from birth to age 5, in the same group.
Despite this guidance, a handful of states have opted to prioritize K-12 educators ahead of their peers in early childhood, prompting outrage from many in the child care sector and leading many of them to organize letter-writing campaigns, distribute petitions and produce videos imploring state leaders to have a change of heart. Those states include Oklahoma, Ohio, Utah, Wyoming, and—most recently—Florida, which provided additional guidance for vaccinations on March 1 and only named “K-12 school employees” as being eligible. Kentucky had previously excluded early childhood educators from its educator grouping, but reversed course last month after pressure from educators, families and advocates.
It’s unclear how Biden’s directive will affect the priority groups in these states, but many early childhood advocates applauded his inclusion of this workforce in the announcement.
“We are pleased to see the Biden-Harris Administration recognizing and prioritizing early childhood educators in getting the vaccine,” said Calvin Moore, Jr., CEO of the Council for Professional Recognition, which oversees the most-recognized child development credential in the field. “Throughout the pandemic, these educators have been on the frontlines caring for our youngest learners.”
Katie Hamm, acting deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, released a statement following Biden’s speech saying that she was “thrilled to see the Biden administration prioritize these essential workers.”
Those in K-12 celebrated the announcement as well. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, released a statement saying, “Vaccinations are a key ingredient to reopening schools safely, and this is the administration taking the steps to ramp up vaccinations for educators, which is great news for everyone who wants in-school learning.”
Biden plans to use the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to ensure educators have access to vaccine doses. Throughout March, educators can sign up for an appointment through their local pharmacies.
“I want to be very clear,” he added. “Not every educator will be able to get their appointment in the first week. But our goal is to do everything we can to help every educator receive a shot this month.”
In vaccinating the national education workforce, Biden is rendering null one of the biggest hesitations that educators cite for reopening school buildings. They argue that it’s unsafe to do so until staff are fully vaccinated (a point Biden rejected in his speech and that the CDC has also pushed back on).
Reopening has been one of the most contentious issues of the pandemic, pitting many members of the public—particularly parents of school-aged children—against those who work in schools. Though only about 28 percent of students are still doing virtual-only instruction, according to Burbio, a website that tracks school reopenings, that amounts to millions of kids who haven’t seen a teacher face-to-face or socialized with their classmates in nearly a year.
The issue has left many families and educators feeling exhausted, deflated and demoralized.
“We were a hero for a week,” says Sansonetti-Wood. “When we went virtual in the spring and teachers turned on a dime, everyone was like, ‘Thank god for teachers.’ Now that we’re asking to be kept safe … I feel like now we’re the villain. That’s hard. Because all of us want the kids back at school, in the building, doing the normal things we do. But when you have this global pandemic, it’s just really hard.”