ETHS works to vaccinate teachers before hybrid learning begins

Aryeh Lesch and Elise Goulding

As ETHS approaches the beginning of hybrid learning, the administration has made clear its commitment to helping its teachers and staff get vaccinated for COVID-19.

“Getting the vaccine for our employees is vital,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon on a Feb. 19 E-Town LIVE. “We’re in touch with the local hospitals, we’re in touch with the local department of public health, [and] they’re doing the best they can with the supply they don’t have,” Witherspoon said, noting the difficulty presented by vaccine supply shortages.

As of March 12, the U.S. is averaging 54,639 new COVID-19 cases per week and has 11.1 percent of its population fully vaccinated, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker. With President Biden directing all states to make all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccination by May 1, and with support for reopening schools mounting among politicians and citizens, there has been an increased focus on teachers’ access to vaccines. That is true at ETHS as well, as the school has announced its plans to begin a hybrid learning model following spring break. Though all teachers being vaccinated is not a prerequisite for in-person hybrid learning to begin, ETHS is nevertheless committed to helping its teachers and staff receive a vaccine before hybrid learning begins.

“Our goal is to make sure that all of our staff has an opportunity to be vaccinated before spring break. And so we’ve been working really hard with the regional office of education, with the City of Evanston, and with St. Francis Hospital. Those three entities, they’re providing vaccines for our staff,” said Toya Campbell, Chief Human Resources Officer.

That intention was echoed by Dr. Witherspoon as well.

“We wanted to give as many of our staff members as possible opportunities to get the vaccine before we come back, and so we actually have allowed the whole third quarter and up to and through spring break for our staff members to have opportunities to get their vaccine,” said Witherspoon on a March 5 E-Town Live.

The HR department has been working to accomplish that by sharing information on vaccine availability with the staff and sending out surveys through which staff members can register for a vaccine.

“We sent a survey out to all of our staff and our coaches, and we wanted to make sure that everybody had an opportunity. And when I say opportunity, it’s because vaccines are not mandated, and we can’t force people, but we do want to give people that opportunity to do so. So we’ve had a little over 400 staff members sign up, and that’s out of about 630 staff members. And so that’s a pretty good sign-up rate. And there will be another event, probably within the next two weeks for the remainder of anybody who wants to be vaccinated, they can be,” said Campbell.

The most recent survey for vaccine sign-up tied into an effort by the administration to provide a mass vaccination for teachers before hybrid learning begins. That effort culminated on Sunday, March 21, when all teachers who remain unvaccinated were able to receive the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine through Walgreen Health Solutions at Maine South High School.

“Finally a community effort pulled it all together and Mayor Hagerty actually found a contact here in an Evanston business called Walgreen Health Solutions,” explained Superintendent Witherspoon on a March 19 E-Town LIVE. “All of our employees who are still wanting and in need of a vaccination will have an opportunity this coming Sunday… to get vaccinated and there will be enough slots reserved for each and every one of them.”

Despite the work of the local health providers, the City of Evanston, and the ETHS administration and HR department, issues with vaccine supply has caused frustration and a lack of clarity for staff concerning when doses are available over the past months.

“Our [Human Resources (HR)] department has done a really good job of telling us what’s going on,” said Schelbert. “The problem is that the data that they’re getting and the information that they’re getting, from my understanding, is pretty inconsistent. And that’s where the challenges are… We’re just kind of waiting patiently to find out when we can get our vaccines.”

That frustration has been felt on both ends, from the HR department as well as teachers and staff, though the supply issue is improving.

“The first time that we sent out our survey, St. Francis said that they would vaccinate, and they only had 450 doses, but they put that email out to District 65, District 202, and the first responders, and it wasn’t enough. So that was frustrating. Since then, the City of Evanston also had some problems obtaining the vaccine, until recently. Now it seems to be better. It seems to be much more readily available, and people are more organized right now,” said Campbell. “Nobody has actually been through a pandemic, and nobody really knows what the rules are. So, everybody is trying the best that they can. And there are definitely some challenges, and there are some frustrations. But if you hang in there and stick to it, you’re able to do it.”

I think they are doing the best they can. We received an email from HR about being on a list through St. Francis, but those doses became unavailable,” said chemistry teacher Terry Gatchell. “Since then, we have been advised to go through local pharmacies, clinics and hospitals to procure an appointment. I think the teachers that have been vaccinated have individually done the legwork to make it happen.”

While some teachers think they have been adequately supported by ETHS in the vaccination effort, others do not. In a March 8 District 202 School Board meeting, many teachers submitted public comments concerning their apprehensions about the upcoming hybrid learning, for which vaccine availability and assistance from the administration were the main focus.

Many teachers have not yet been able to be vaccinated because the school chose not to partner with a company to ensure all staff received the vaccine,” wrote ETHS English teacher Liz Schulman.

“Many of our faculty and staff are still not vaccinated,” wrote ETHS English teacher Sara Young. “It is extremely difficult to find vaccine appointments. Some neighboring schools were able to work with local health officials and get their employees vaccinated. However, ETHS was not able to do this.”

As for vaccine eligibility, “There’s a prioritization called group 1B. The way the CDC has recommended vaccinations [is that] they have prioritized anybody who works in a school. So it’s not just teachers in our building [who are eligible]; it’s everybody who works in the building,” said Campbell. “Because if you think about this, there are a lot of people who never left the building. Custodians never left, maintenance never left, food service never left, support staff, many of the safety staff; they’ve been in the building. And so we’ve prioritized them as well.”

English teacher Anita Bucio has gotten both doses of the vaccine. Bucio decided early on to get the vaccine and signed herself up to be vaccinated independently from the school.

“[Getting vaccinated] was really hard. There was a way, a time when appointments were posted. I had to stalk websites. I had to really be clever with technology to get an appointment, and after I was able to secure an appointment for myself, I helped many other friends and colleagues with the information,” said Bucio. 

Because, more than likely not all teachers who want to be vaccinated will be fully vaccinated by the beginning of hybrid learning, there are different opinions amongst teachers regarding how safe they feel returning to in-person teaching. Gatchell says that once vaccinated, she would feel comfortable returning to the school building, even if not all students or teachers are vaccinated. However, she would want other precautions to be taken.

Those additional safety measures would include “everyone properly wearing their mask while inside the building and not being stupid while outside the building, scheduling classes to establish and maintain physically distant learning environments and adequate ventilation in rooms,” said Gatchell.

Other teachers feel that, even if they are vaccinated, they would still not be completely comfortable returning to school. Bucio feels anxious for her young sons and still-unvaccinated family members. 

“I think the only safety measure that would make me feel completely safe is knowing that our community has a majority threshold where people, staff and students have all received the vaccination,” said Bucio.

Even with these reservations, Bucio would be willing to teach in person if it meant her unvaccinated and more at-risk colleagues could stay home.

“I am more fearful for my colleagues who don’t have any vaccination yet… I am more than willing to step in for colleagues who have not been vaccinated at all and advocate for them because I’m afraid for them,” Bucio said.

 The topic of returning to in-person teaching is complex, and teachers’ opinions on it are naturally varied. 

“It’s not so simple. As far as teachers are concerned, just as with society, there’s a whole myriad of responses. We have teachers who are willing to go in tomorrow, vaccinated or not. We also have teachers who have serious medical conditions that prevent them from going into the building, or they live with someone who has a very compromised situation, and the risk of exposure is non-negotiable,” said Schelbert. “I can say that everybody wants the vaccine. And we do know that, once we’re vaccinated, that is a huge hurdle on getting back to normalcy.” 

It is important to remember that all teachers being vaccinated is not mandatory for hybrid learning to begin. Despite the over 400 staff members who have so far signed up for a COVID-19 vaccine through the HR department and the many other teachers who were vaccinated independently, the reality is that many staff members (and practically all students) will not be vaccinated when in-person learning resumes. That, along with the myriad other considerations that people take into account regarding COVID-19 and vaccines, is being weighed heavily by teachers as they react to the news of the upcoming transition to hybrid learning. 

My primary concerns of safety are not for myself, because I will have had the opportunity to get fully vaccinated two weeks before we are to begin the hybrid schedule. However, I am concerned that not all teachers and staff members at ETHS will have had the chance to be immunized if they choose to do so,” wrote English teacher John Kennedy-Farrell in a public comment in the March 8 District 202 School Board Meeting.

For now, many teachers remain patiently waiting for information regarding vaccine availability, and the administration and Human Resources Department remain diligently working to get that information from the Evanston Health Department and St. Francis Hospital to them.

“We’re honored to be ETHS teachers, and we’re proud of the fact that our first semester [academic] data is right in line with previous first semesters when we were not in the pandemic,” said Schelbert. “I really give credit to all of our teachers for doing that, and I just hope that ETHS and the administration continue to put students first [and] put their education first. We are here for the community.”