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Education

NOLA Public Schools Says Teacher Vaccination Is Running Ahead Of Schedule

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Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., left, speaks with public school teacher Kristen Bowens at a vaccine event. Feb. 23, 2021.

When Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards extended vaccine eligibility to K-12 school employees at the end of February, teachers expected long wait times. But so far in New Orleans that hasn’t been the case.

Vaccination efforts appear to be ahead of schedule, particularly for NOLA Public School teachers. Twice as many teachers were vaccinated during the first week of distribution than originally anticipated, according to the district, which is helping schedule appointments for its employees.

The district credits its speedy rollout to the availability of doses and advanced planning — surveying teachers to gauge interest and partnering with local hospitals to secure appointments.

The district has agreed to coordinate appointments for all its teachers and staff — more than 8,000 people. As of last month, 5,050 said they planned on getting vaccinated as soon as possible.

During the first week of distribution,1,500 public school employees received the vaccine through the district’s partnership with several local healthcare providers. Another 1,250 employees are expected to receive the vaccine by the end of this week.

Based on previous estimates of vaccine supply and capacity, Taslin Alfonzo, a NOLA Public Schools spokesperson, said officials expected vaccine distribution to take six to eight weeks. Now they’ve cut that timeline in half.

“At the current pace, we hope to have connected each school in our community with an opportunity to receive their initial dose of the vaccine by the end of the third week of March,” Alfonzo said in an email Wednesday.

Vaccination numbers, provided by Alfonzo, don’t include employees who secured vaccine appointments on their own. When you factor in these individuals, the district’s vaccination rate is likely much higher.

While the district has agreed to schedule appointments for all of its employees and coordinate vaccines for other local educators, officials have encouraged teachers to secure appointments on their own.

The district has special access at several area hospitals, but the number of daily spots are limited. School officials said in some cases, teachers may be able to access the vaccine faster by making an appointment on their own and filling a spot left open for the general public.

At a press event last week at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. explained the careful planning behind the district’s rollout.

“We actually had to figure out who goes first, who goes second?” Lewis said, describing the district’s need to create priority groups to stagger vaccinations.

The district conducted a lottery, randomly sorting schools into four priority groups. Teachers in the first group were offered vaccine appointments as soon as the governor announced the eligibility expansion.

Kristen Bowens, a teacher at Mary D. Coghill Elementary, was placed in the district’s first priority group. She scheduled an appointment through the district’s partnership with Children’s Hospital and received her first dose of the vaccine on Feb. 23, one day after the governor’s order went into effect.

“It’s honestly just a mindset of feeling safer,” Bowens said, showing off a bandaid clad arm. “One more layer of protection.”

The 32-year-old teaches eighth grade science and social studies. Bowen has been back in her classroom since August, watching her students toggle between in-person and online learning.

“It’s rough on the kids,” Bowens said. “The kids are learning. Just as we’re teaching them the curriculum, we’re teaching them to socially distance and wear their mask.”

Teachers Are Also Getting Appointments On Their Own

For teachers in later priority groups, securing a vaccine appointment outside the district’s partnership was an obvious choice. In most cases, the process was relatively easy.

Chris Dier, a social studies teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School, was initially concerned that he would be unable to find an appointment when he started making phone calls on Feb. 22, the day the governor’s order went into effect.

He spent the day making phone calls and eventually scheduled an appointment through LCMC Health. Dier said the process was even simpler for many of his colleagues.

The following Monday, he tweeted, “The amount of Louisiana educators and staff who have been vaccinated within the last week gives me hope.”

Rebecca Cavalier, an English teacher at Franklin and secretary of the school’s teachers union, said she was disappointed that the school district and state didn’t have a more centralized vaccination process for teachers.

Not knowing when and how the district would help secure a vaccine appointment on her behalf, Cavalier said she took matters into her own hands.

After calling around, she made an appointment through Ochsner Health and received her first dose last Friday. She said other Franklin teachers have done the same.

“Our nurse and coordinator of communications ... offered to help anyone through the scheduling process if needed. So we are making the best of a somewhat chaotic situation,” Cavalier said in an email.

Teachers at other schools in lower priority groups, like Bricolage Academy and Warren Easton Charter High School, have also sought and secured vaccine appointments on their own. For teachers who waited for district-provided appointments, the wait has been shorter than expected.

Both schools are offering onsite vaccinations to teachers this week, something the district has made possible by helping deploy mobile vaccine units.

Mobile Vaccination Units Speed Things Up

Since the district first announced its vaccine distribution plan, it has expanded its resources considerably. The district’s list of medical partners now includes health providers across the city, including Children’s Hospital, New Orleans East Hospital, Depaul, Oschner and other health clinics.

Children’s and New Orleans East Hospital are both providing mobile units to speed up vaccination efforts and prioritize teachers in under-resourced areas like the East and the Lower 9th Ward.

This week, New Orleans East Hospital is scheduled to provide approximately 600 doses across 10 school sites.

In an interview with New Orleans Public Radio late last week, hospital CEO Dr. Takeisha Davis said the process had been going smoothly so far. Her strike team can usually vaccinate 50 people in an hour.

“We've gone to three schools a day, bringing those vans out in the teams and that's worked very well, because it allows our educators to stay in the school,” Davis said.

She said some charter management organizations have arranged for teachers from several schools to meet at one central location, allowing the vaccine process to proceed at an even faster pace.

Willing And Eager Staff Speed Things Up, Too

Visiting schools, Davis said she’s noticed less vaccine hesitancy from teachers than some had expected.

“Like our hospital workers, [teachers] have been at risk,” Davis said. “They've had exposures and they've had to go on quarantine and lockdowns.”

“They really have not, in our experience, expressed the same hesitancy around the vaccine and I think it’s because of the perceived risk,” she said.

About 63 percent of NOLA-PS staff answered ‘yes’ to a survey asking teachers if they wanted the vaccine immediately.

That rate has been lower in neighboring parishes, hovering at around 50 percent, in line with State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley statewide projections.

“I’m very hopeful ... that as individuals see their colleagues getting vaccinated it builds more trust that this is safe and it’s the right thing to do,” Lewis said last week.

According to Alfonzo, some teachers and schools staff who answered the district’s survey indicated vaccine hesitancy, but said they’d be interested in receiving the vaccine at a later date.

Alfonzo said the district will make sure they have another chance to get the vaccine through district-sponsored events in April and May.

“Even as I’m celebrating educators receiving the vaccination I just want to be very, very clear with the public, we’re not relaxing our safety standards,” Lewis said.

Cases in New Orleans public schools continue to remain low. On Monday, the district reported eight new cases of COVID-19. In total, there are 13 active cases of COVID-19 among nine students and four staff members. According to the district’s tracker, the cases were reported across six different schools.

WWNO’s Bobbi-Jeanne Misick contributed to this report.

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