A lot of noise has been heard over the past two months on the outside in the whole teacher vaccination debate in Everett, but on the inside many teachers had been struggling internally with the idea of serving their students or preserving their health.
It was a tough intersection for the district’s many hundreds of teachers, but one that has been resolved this week as President Joe Biden and Gov. Charlie Baker cleared the way for teachers to get vaccinated last week, and many now have already received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
It couldn’t have come at a better time either, as Everett Public Schools educators have a tentative agreement to return to school buildings this month.
“I got my first dose at Gillette over the weekend and it was smooth as silk,” said Everett Teachers Association President Kim Auger. “I was very, very pleased at how it went…It really makes us look at going back in a far different way. We will keep our social distancing and protocols…I do feel like it is a relief. It’s in your arm and you’re like, ‘Oh my it’s been a year.’ It felt a little bit of relief, but we are still social distancing and wearing masks in our home.”
Teacher Jennifer Cuthbert said she felt the same way. As a 42-year-old fifth-grade teacher at the Webster School, she wasn’t likely to be vaccinated under the old system any time soon. So, going back without the protection of a vaccine was nerve-wracking, she said.
As a veteran, and with the teaching vaccination debate being settled last week, she was able to get an appointment and will be vaccinated before school starts, she said.
“It’s huge for me,” she said. “It’s a huge sense of relief. Being in a class with 20-plus kids in a small room with mask off to eat lunch – that’s the plan I heard – it was nerve wracking. It’s a tough situation and I get it. A lot of parents have children at home and might have to go to work. However, my mom just had a brain tumor and had surgery so that was a main concern for me.”
Middle School teacher Keith Spencer echoed that sentiment, saying he was able to get his first vaccine about 30 minutes from his home. While he went through the wringer last Thursday, March 4, to get his appointment, he said finally getting it change everything.
“Personally, getting vaccinated before going back was at the top of my list,” he said. “I’m from a family that has issues with immunity. I don’t have immunity issues myself, but I was concerned with that. I understand transmission rates and stuff but I know we also haven’t crowded 30 to 35 kids in a room at the school. I wanted to get kids back here, but I was also hoping we would get the priority as essential people. I was quite disappointed when the governor didn’t make us a priority when school opening was a priority.
“For me, it was an essential thing,” he continued. “I wasn’t going to apply for medical paperwork. I would have gone back to the classroom without a vaccination, but it was tough. I’m glad I didn’t have to make that decision.”
That decision has been weighing on Spencer and other teachers in the district. Many in the administration have been pushing for vaccination, but in absence of that, they have also been pushing to get in-person learning available to students and families. That’s in large part because a majority of families are ready to send their children back to school. Everett tried to initiate a pilot program to vaccinate teachers in February, but that was squelched by Gov. Baker before it could happen – pitting teachers against some students and families on the return discussion.
“It just didn’t feel right,” said Spencer. “I felt like things that went on in our state over the last few weeks put us in that situation to where we had to choose between our students and our own personal safety. I was thinking about what happened if I got sick. I love my job and my students and what I do, but I was nervous about going back. I don’t think anyone should have to be put in a situation where they have to choose between their health and their job.”
Spencer said he is to receive his second dose of the vaccine in early April, just before he is scheduled to return. With that confidence, he said he is ready to be back – not that he wasn’t before – but that he can do his job without the nagging concern of being unprotected at work.
“If you’re a teacher and truly love what you do, you know the best way to teach your students is in-person learning,” he said. “I’m ready to go back.”
Teachers across the school system are to report back to the classroom on March 22 as part of a tentative agreement with the district.