Krystal Ash-Cuthbert, who teaches in Scarborough, sits in the dining room of her Windham home, which is a makeshift office during remote learning. Ash-Cuthbert, president of the Scarborough Education Association, said teachers are feeling frustrated with Maine’s current vaccination plans. “Give us the same opportunity as others like first responders and nurses or don’t make us essential workers,” she said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maine officials faced growing pressure Tuesday from the state’s educators and the White House to begin vaccinating teachers against COVID-19.

President Biden on Tuesday directed states to prioritize vaccinating all teachers, something most states are already doing but Maine is not. Also, the union representing Maine teachers stepped up its calls to vaccinate teachers at high risk, especially as pressure builds to get children back into classrooms this spring.

The calls for teacher vaccinations comes just days after Gov. Janet Mills announced that Maine will expand vaccine eligibility based solely on age, pointing out that age is the biggest risk factor and arguing that age-based eligibility was the quickest way to inoculate as many people as possible and reach herd immunity. Mainers 60 and older become eligible on Wednesday.

Other groups such as people with underlying medical conditions, workers required to interact with the public and teachers and other school staff will not be given priority under the plan. State officials did promise to provide eligible teachers easier access to vaccine clinics, although no details have been finalized.

Mills’ spokeswoman said the governor shares the president’s goal of vaccinating school staff and child care workers, as well as those most at risk of serious illness and death as soon as possible, but that the state’s supply of COVID-19 vaccine needs to increase in order for the administration to realize that goal.

“Today’s news about more doses coming faster could help us achieve this goal, and the governor looks forward to receiving more information from the White House about this expected increase in vaccine supply,” Lindsay Crete said in a statement Tuesday night.

President Biden increased the pressure on states to vaccinate teachers during a White House news conference Tuesday. He said that more than 30 states have made teacher vaccinations a priority.

“Let’s treat in-person learning like an essential service that it is. And that means getting essential workers who provide that service – educators, school staff, childcare workers – get them vaccinated immediately. They’re essential workers,” Biden said in his public remarks.

Biden said he would invoke the full authority of the federal government to accomplish his goal of getting every educator, school staff member, and childcare worker to receive at least one COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March.

“To help make this happen, starting next week and for a month, the month of March, we will be using our federal pharmacy program to prioritize the vaccination of pre-K through 12 educators, and staff and childcare workers. Throughout March, they will be able to sign up for an appointment at a pharmacy near them,” Biden said.

Jessica Chaples, who teaches art at Blue Point School and Pleasant Hill School in Scarborough, will have to wait until May to get a shot under the state’s current guidelines. She said, “I’m frustrated because I feel teachers are essential workers.”  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Also upping the pressure on Maine to take steps to protect teachers from the virus was the Maine Education Association, which continued its calls this week for the state to prioritize vaccinations for high-risk school staff, saying educators face increasing stress and anxiety about their safety, as well as growing pressure to increase in-person learning. Grace Leavitt, president of the union that represents more than 23,000 Maine educators, sent a letter to Mills this week saying “many of our educators are extremely distraught and angry that all educators aren’t prioritized to receive vaccinations now.”

The association is asking Mills to prioritize school staff with high-risk medical conditions and staff who work with special education students. “There are a number of younger educators who have high-risk medical conditions who feel nothing less than despondent at their particular situation,” Leavitt wrote. Leavitt, who has been asking to meet with Mills about the plan, said a number of association members “feel disrespected” by the vaccination plan because it lacks recognition of how dedicated teachers are and how hard they are working as essential front-line workers.

“They’ve been putting their lives and their families’ lives at risk to provide as much in-person instruction as possible,” she said in an interview. “We understand the science, but we also need to recognize the fact that our educators who are doing the work in person – which is the vast majority – are in close proximity to a large number of people.”

The MEA’s opposition to the age-based plan hardened since it was announced Friday, when Leavitt avoided criticizing the administration’s policy and said educators “understand how difficult this is for everyone.”

Leavitt also reacted to Biden’s remarks Tuesday, praising the president for recognizing the anxieties that educators have been facing. Leavitt said the MEA and the National Education Association have been advocating for educators to be given vaccines so that schools can safely reopen.

“We are grateful that President Biden heard that message and we applaud his plan to prioritize our nation’s educators,” Leavitt said in a statement Tuesday evening. “MEA has always said that if our schools are a priority, our staff should be too, and the announcement from the president to prioritize educators is welcome news for those who have been working hard to keep our students safe and learning.”

Leavitt said her organization expects that all Maine educators will be offered vaccines as soon as possible regardless of age with the goal of having all educators vaccinated by the end of March.

“With word of a vaccine in March comes hope, however, MEA must continue to reinforce that science dictates a vaccine is not a silver bullet, and other safety protocols must remain in place,” Leavitt said. “As pressure mounts to bring more students into schools for increased time in-person, we must make it clear that the six safety requirements set forth by the state must remain in place.”

She said that if schools are unable to comply with safety protocols, such as maintaining an absolute minimum of 3 feet between students, then schools should not be allowed to expand in-person learning.

A total of 34 states are now providing vaccine access to some or all teachers, according to Education Week.

Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that more information about dedicated clinics for school staff and teachers will be released later this week. The clinics, which will likely be held on Fridays and Saturdays at existing vaccination sites, will give age-eligible school staff an option to get a vaccine above and beyond other options available through hospitals and pharmacies.

“This is an extra option for teachers and staff. We are offering this because we recognize trying to get more children in classrooms is a priority,” Lambrew said.

Lambrew said about 10,000 school staff are eligible for vaccination in the 60-plus age group.

The announcement about age-based eligibility came as a surprise to Jessica Chaples, who teaches art to a couple hundred students at two primary schools in Scarborough. For months, she and her colleagues assumed they’d be vaccinated in early spring along with other front-line workers, and were disappointed to hear they’d have to wait.

“I’m frustrated because I feel teachers are essential workers,” she said. “We’ve done such an amazing job as a state keeping our schools open, even if it’s hybrid. I’d like to see teachers get (vaccinated) sooner rather than later.”

Chaples is relieved some of her older colleagues are eligible this week, but she’ll have to wait until May to get a shot and some other teachers won’t be eligible until after the school year is over.

“We’re still in the trenches and doing the best job we can while trying to stay safe,” she said.

Krystal Ash-Cuthbert, president of the Scarborough Education Association and a teacher at the district’s Wentworth School, said teachers are feeling frustrated with the current vaccination plans.

“Across the state and especially in southern Maine, there’s a lot of push for kids to be back at school full-time,” Ash-Cuthbert said. “That’s what we’re hearing and we’re not sure how we can be considered essential workers and not get vaccinated with essential workers. It seems hypocritical. Give us the same opportunity as others like first responders and nurses or don’t make us essential workers. It doesn’t seem fair to teachers that we’re in one category but don’t receive the benefits of being in that category.”

Under the current age-based schedule, Ash-Cuthbert said many teachers will not be vaccinated until the late spring or early summer. According to Maine Department of Education statistics, 70 percent of school staff in Maine, those 40 and older, will be vaccinated by the end of May under the age-based policy.

But students will not be vaccinated, and Ash-Cuthbert said many teachers are worried about their students getting sick if schools were to try and bring more people into classrooms.

“It’s not just teachers saying, ‘This is what we need.’ We recognize this puts kids’ lives at danger and that’s not OK with me,” she said.

Regardless of when teachers are vaccinated, schools also continue to face challenges to adding more in-person time because of the current CDC guidelines, in particular the physical distancing requirements. U.S. CDC guidance currently calls for 6 feet of distance to be maximized to the greatest extent possible, though the Maine DOE has said 3 feet is permissible between students when other mitigating factors, like masks are in place.

“Right now CDC guidelines determine how many kids we can have in, so whether we are vaccinated or not, that’s in place and it’s not just in place for teachers, it’s in place for kids,” Ash-Cuthbert said. “While research shows kids don’t have symptoms to the extreme adults do, kids can still get sick.”

More than 85 percent of COVID deaths in Maine have been among those 70 or older, and 98 percent were over 50, according to CDC statistics.

John Suttie, superintendent of RSU 23 and principal at Old Orchard Beach High School, understands why parents who are exhausted and stressed are pushing for their kids to have more in-person learning, but that’s not going to be an option as soon as teachers are vaccinated.

“The reality of all this lies in the math and protocols for spacing. If those don’t change, in-person learning isn’t going to change,” he said. “Vaccinating teachers isn’t going to change that.”

Suttie said that while he and his staff wish that educators could all be vaccinated as soon as possible, there is a general understanding that transmission of the virus in schools has been low.

“There’s no easy way to do this,” he said. “Like reopening schools last fall, there’s never going to be consensus about the right way to go about things. Although we would like to get our educators vaccinated as soon as possible, if you follow the logic you can understand why they’re rolling out the vaccinations in this manner.”

While waiting for more information about how the clinics for school staff will work, Suttie is working behind the scenes to identify teachers who are eligible this week for vaccinations. In Old Orchard Beach beach schools, 59 staff members – including 29 full-time staffers, 15 adult education employees, 12 substitute teachers and three coaches – will be eligible Wednesday.

A change.org petition asking Mills and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, to prioritize vaccination for Maine teachers had been signed by more than 2,100 people on Tuesday afternoon. The petition, started by Joy Engel and Rebecca Falzano, says “Maine’s teachers and childcare providers have faced enormous challenges over the last 12 months, often putting their own health at risk to care for and educate the state’s children. It’s imperative that these dedicated education professionals have access to a COVID vaccine as soon as possible, regardless of what age category they fall in.”

Staff Writers Dennis Hoey and Rachel Ohm contributed to this report.

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