After shipment delays seemed to derail a plan to begin vaccinating teachers next week, a small amount of COVID-19 vaccines will now be available after all as originally scheduled — though there’s no direction yet on which Utah school staff members will be prioritized to get the limited number of doses.
All K-12 personnel were moved up on Utah’s immunization priority list and now are scheduled after front-line hospital employees, long-term care residents and staff, and certain other health care workers. And the state had initially hoped to begin the inoculations for educators and school staff at the end of December.
That got pushed back to the end of January or early February for most staff, said Tom Hudachko, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health, after the state didn’t receive expected additional doses on time from the federal government.
“We’re constantly looking at our supply and what our anticipated supply is,” he added.
But a small amount has become available to start distributing to some school staff early, aligning more closely with the original timetable, said Nicholas Rupp, the spokesperson for the Salt Lake County Department of Health. He did not specify whether the doses were reallocated from a previous group of recipients or whether they are part of an additional shipment.
It’s also not clear how many doses of that newly available vaccine will include for education employees statewide.
Salt Lake County’s health department, though, said it has roughly 7,000 to 8,000 set aside to administer to school personnel next week. The second dose is not counted as part of that and is ordered separately, Rupp added.
The amount will cover less than one-third of the roughly 30,000 K-12 staff in the county (though, of course, some may opt not to get the vaccine).
“It’s not enough for all school staff. They won’t all be vaccinated next week,” Rupp added, noting the county includes five public districts, as well as private, parochial and charter employees.
The rollout for school staff will continue forward in this kind of piecemeal system — with supplies calculated week to week — rather than the state being able to collect enough to vaccinate all at roughly the same time, as it had hoped, Rupp said.
With that, Hudachko acknowledged it’s not clear if vaccine recipients will be prioritized based on underlying health conditions or age or district. The county health department won’t be doing that, Rupp said; and the state health department has not made any decisions to put more vulnerable individuals or harder-hit schools first.
Much of the focus has been on Salt Lake City School District, which has about 3,500 employees. It has been the only one in the state to remain online so far this academic year. And it initially agreed to reopen in person for the upcoming semester with a pledge from the Legislature that its staff would tentatively be able get vaccinated on Jan. 8 and 9.
After that date was pushed back, though, the district’s board voted Tuesday night to delay the return to the classroom for junior high and high school students until inoculations are completed and staff can safely return to teach the oldest students.
That decision has unraveled negotiations with the state to provide bonuses for Salt Lake City teachers, too, as part of the exchange for opening on Feb. 8 — roughly a week after employees originally would have gotten their second dose.
Yándary Chatwin, the spokesperson for the district, said Wednesday that the announcement of the limited vaccine supply for school staff doesn’t yet change the recent plans to postpone face-to-face learning.
The district, she said, has not heard from the state or county health departments about the doses, or from Community Nursing Services, the company Rupp said was hired to administer them. “We haven’t heard anything new today,” Chatwin added.
If the staff in the district, as a whole, are prioritized to get the vaccine first, Salt Lake City’s secondary schools may reopen as originally planned, she noted. But, if not, they will continue to stay closed, as the board voted, until all teachers there have a chance to get immunized.
The elementary schools will move forward with returning beginning on Jan. 25, unaffected by the vaccinations.
If the district doesn’t restart fully in person by Feb. 8, however, House Speaker Brad Wilson has said teachers there will lose the $1,500 bonuses. He had moved to withhold those in the first place because educators were instructing entirely online and the Republican-led Legislature has pushed for kids to have the option to return in person (while also leaving the decision up to local control).
The teachers union for the district has said the money is not a priority for educators there; they are more concerned about their health during the pandemic.
Granite, Canyons, Jordan and Murray school districts are also located in the county and the available doses could be split among them, too.