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Colorado moves teacher vaccines up to early February

Governor Jared Polis gestures with his hand while speaking.
Gov. Jared Polis announced on Friday, Jan. 29 that Colorado teachers will soon be able to receive the coronavirus vaccination.
Andy Cross/The Denver Post

Colorado teachers and child care workers will be able to receive the coronavirus vaccine starting Feb. 8 after Gov. Jared Polis announced on Friday new eligibility guidelines.

Some Colorado educators said the change helped ease concerns as schools return to in-person learning after weeks of back-and-forth uncertainty about when they would be eligible to be vaccinated.

Polis, during a Friday news conference, said teachers are foundational to the functioning of society, and opening up the vaccine to teachers will help preserve the sanity of families with kids.

“Our schools are a cornerstone institution of our society,” Polis said. “And it’s important that we focus on them returning safely to school, that we’re able to keep our schools in person in the safest way as possible, and to have as normal a spring semester as possible during the pandemic.”

Vaccinating teachers will prevent interruptions and the need for quarantine protocols that have led to schools effectively shutting down for periods of time, he said.

Teachers will be notified how to get the vaccine through communication from their school district. Child care workers should also expect to hear from their employer.

Those eligible include preschool through 12th grade classroom teachers, child care workers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, food service workers, safety workers, and others who provide services in public schools. About 120,000 people are in this group, state officials said.

Polis said the Biden administration has provided more certainty about vaccine supply that allows the state to plan better and offer the vaccine to more people sooner. Polis said the state would set aside about a third of its supply for educators and estimated that all eligible educators who want the vaccine would be able to get their first shot over a three-week period.

People who are age 65 and up also will be able to get vaccinated starting Feb. 8, reflecting new guidance from the federal government.

Colorado teachers expressed feelings of relief for themselves and their students.

“I’m excited to hug my students,” said Nicole Thayer, a special education teacher at Eastridge Elementary School in Aurora.

Melanie Potyondy, a school psychologist at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, said having vaccinated teachers will give the students she works with peace of mind.

“I also work with highly anxious kids who are going to feel so much safer going back to school if their teachers are vaccinated,” she said.

Klaudia Neufeld, a specialist in social and emotional learning in the Adams 12 Five Star school district, said she’s hopeful that being vaccinated will ease restrictions on the amount of time she can spend with students. For instance, one of her students had a parent die by suicide recently, and COVID-19 restrictions mean Neufeld can only see the student for 15 minutes per day.

“This is just one tiny example of how big a deal it is that now this child can come to school and have the breaks he needs, have the support he needs,” Neufeld said.

But teachers also emphasized that getting vaccinated doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. Several said they hope their school districts continue to take precautions.

“While it might be safe for me now, it is not safe for my students and for their families they’re going home to,” said Kelly Osuna, a teacher in the Cherry Creek School District.

The vaccines are not currently approved for use in children, and it will be months before the general public has access. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are more than 90% effective in preventing sickness in people who have had both doses, there remains uncertainty about whether people who have been vaccinated can transmit the virus to others.

Classroom teachers have been on a roller coaster when it comes to their place in line for the COVID-19 vaccine.

After initially placing teachers in Phase 2, which was expected to open in April, Polis announced in late December that teachers would move up to Phase 1B, alongside people age 70 and up, first responders like police officers and firefighters, and moderate-risk medical professionals. Some school districts like Cherry Creek started making plans with large health care providers to get their teachers vaccinated by the end of January.

But the state soon put the kibosh on those plans, announcing that while school nurses and other school-based medical professionals could get vaccinated, teachers would have to wait until after older adults had a chance to be vaccinated.

That pushed vaccinations for classroom teachers back to March, even as school districts transitioned back to in-person learning in January. Many teachers have said they should have the chance to get vaccinated before being asked to teach in person.

Around the country, states have grappled with how to prioritize different groups. Polis has said repeatedly that Colorado would give the highest priority to those at the highest risk of death — older adults — rather than those with the higher risk of exposure, such as essential workers.

Polis called prioritizing older adults “the easiest call” he has made around vaccine distribution.

And the decision to open up the vaccine to teachers ahead of other essential workers was driven by equity, he said The state has seen many women, especially, needing to quit jobs to take care of kids who are schooling from home.

“Our schools are key to have back first and foremost, for the kids and their families,” Polis said. “But also for equity across society, including addressing the increase in gender disparities in the workforce.”

Colorado’s latest priority list maintains people people age 70 and up at the top of Phase 1B. A second tier within 1B includes those age 65-69 and educators.

A new third tier within Phase 1B includes other front-line essential workers and people age 17 to 65 who have two or more conditions that put them at high risk of serious illness. Those people will be able to vaccinated starting in March. About 1.1 million Coloradans are in this group.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

It’s unclear when college professors and staff will be eligible for the vaccine, Polis said.

Older adults have had the opportunity to get vaccinated for several weeks now, but the rollout has been plagued by confusion and limited supply from the federal government. Many people in eligible categories still have not been vaccinated or even been notified of an appointment, and people are reporting long wait times on the state’s vaccine hotline.

At the same time, some members of eligible groups have declined the vaccine, including as many as half of workers in nursing homes.

According to the state’s vaccine dashboard, about 2% of Coloradans have received both doses and another 7% have received the first dose.

In addition to providing personal protection for teachers, vaccinating school staff could reduce the impact of quarantines on in-person instruction. On Tuesday, State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said that people in low-risk settings, which include schools and day care centers, would not have to quarantine after exposure to COVID if they were at least two weeks past the second dose of the vaccine.

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