Utah teachers and school staff will have to wait a while longer to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The planned immunizations for K-12 personnel are now being pushed back because the state is receiving doses at a slower rate than expected from the federal government. Instead of education employees here getting a first shot by the middle of January, it will be closer to the end of January or early February.
“We’re back about a week to 10 days from where we thought we would be,” said Tom Hudachko, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health.
Hudachko said it’s not a shortage of doses, but a delay in when the state is estimated to receive its share. And it could be even longer still. The shipment schedule is updated each week.
Utah educators had been moved up the list for vaccinations when Gov. Gary Herbert announced earlier this month that he was designating them as essential and putting them “at the front of the line” so that kids could continue going to school. They are slated to receive a dose after certain health care workers and long-term care center residents.
With fewer doses on hand, though, the state won’t be done immunizing those individuals until the end of January, Hudachko said, adding: “We want to make sure we get through those groups first. They’re the priority.”
All school districts, charters and private schools were notified of the delay last week.
It’s not clear yet if it will impact plans for Salt Lake City School District to reopen in person beginning in January. The district in the state’s capital has been in a unique situation; it was the only one to remain entirely online this fall.
It agreed to return for face-to-face instruction after winter break as part of a negotiation with state leaders, who were withholding bonuses from teachers in the district as long as classes stayed virtual. The district said it would reopen for elementary students beginning on Jan. 25 and secondary students on Feb. 8. That was based on teachers getting the vaccine, though.
Educators in the district were slated to get their first immunization shot on Jan. 8 and 9 — the first of any district in the state — so that they would have enough time to get their second dose before the junior high and high schools reopened.
With the delay in vaccinations, teachers there could more than a month into school before they’re fully inoculated. Hudachko believes the earliest likely date now for school staff vaccinations is Jan. 25, with the second shot coming three weeks later.
Yándary Chatwin, the spokesperson for Salt Lake City School District, said Tuesday that the delay hasn’t affected any reopening plans yet. The district superintendent still plans to recommend the same schedule for returning in person to the school board on Jan. 5. But it will be up to members of the board whether to approve it without the promised vaccines.
“It’s disappointing and frustrating,” Chatwin said. “But we knew that there was that possibility for delay. Everything just seems to change so quickly.”
Harry Hansen, the spokesperson for the Utah House, said leaders there have not talked to the district about the delay and whether that disrupts their negotiations over the teacher bonuses and reopening.
“if there’s an issue, we’re willing to keep the conversation open,” Hansen said.
All other districts in the state have been offering at least some option for in-person learning this school year. And, during that time, more than 2,300 teachers have been infected (for an overall rate much higher than among students).
Because of that, the Utah Education Association lobbied the governor to have teachers vaccinated among the first groups in the state. And the announcement that they would be was met with cheers and sighs of relief.
Now, some are worried about what the delay in vaccinations might portend.
Granite School District had tentatively planned to vaccinate its staff on Jan. 15. Spokesperson Ben Horsley said administrators are now penciling in a time for the end of January, but they’re trying to be flexible. “We didn’t want to pick a new date and have it go south again,” Horsley said.
JoAnne Brown, who teaches at Olympus Junior High in Salt Lake County, is a two-time cancer survivor and has asthma. She’s afraid of pushing the immunizations back while she continues to come to the classroom each day to teach.
“Wonder if there’s a way to get on a high-risk list,” she wrote on Twitter.
The state has said it won’t prioritize teachers in the order that they get vaccinated. Hudachko said all education staff across every district in the state will have the opportunity to get immunized around the same time as soon as there are enough supplies. “We want to be equitable,” he said.
Overall, there are roughly 70,000 school staffers in the state who qualify, according to the Utah Board of Education, including teachers, custodians, bus drivers and all part-time school employees.