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Omaha teachers and school staffs could receive COVID vaccine in January
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Omaha teachers and school staffs could receive COVID vaccine in January

Nebraska Medical Center received 3000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday morning.

Surveys are underway in several metro Omaha school districts to gauge how willing teachers are to take a COVID-19 vaccine.

Two districts already report that a large majority of teachers want the vaccine, which could be available to them as early as January.

Officials in Omaha Public Schools, Millard Public Schools and other metro districts are surveying employees to get a count of willing takers.

Tens of thousands of education workers in both Iowa and Nebraska will be eligible, and the surveys will help health departments determine how many doses will be needed.

Nebraska has about 27,000 public and private school teachers. Iowa has more than 40,000.

Taking the vaccine is voluntary, and state and local officials say there are no plans, for now, to mandate it.

Nebraska’s vaccination plan puts teachers in the second priority group, after doctors, emergency room workers and long-term care workers. Teachers, deemed essential workers, are in the same group with first responders and workers in the food, agricultural, utilities and transportation sectors.

Iowa’s teachers are likewise prioritized to receive the vaccine after front-line health care workers.

As for vaccinating school-age children, no definite plans exist at this point.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for late teens and adults, the agency has not authorized their use for children.

If an approved child vaccine becomes available, policymakers will have to wrestle with whether to require immunization for school enrollment, as is the case with polio, tetanus, mumps and several other diseases.

Laura Krallman, 33, who teaches kindergarten at Springfield Elementary School in the Springfield Platteview Community Schools, has “zero reservations” about getting the vaccine.

“I am getting the vaccine to protect others around me, the students that I teach and my family, as well as myself,” Krallman said.

She said she has faith in the science and research behind it.

Her stepfather, a doctor, already received a vaccine and had no issues. Her brother, a nurse in the intensive care unit at Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy, is in line for it.

“I’m trusting the science, and I think that it’s going to be a great thing,” she said.

She was told that Springfield Platteview staff could receive it at the end of January. District officials are not sure which vaccine version they will receive.

About 80% of staff in the Papillion La Vista Community Schools indicated they want the vaccine, while 6% do not, spokeswoman Annette Eyman said.

The remainder were unsure, some saying they needed to check with their doctors regarding conditions such as allergies and pregnancy, Eyman said.

In Iowa, 86% of the staff at the Council Bluffs Community Schools indicated they’re willing to take it, district spokeswoman Diane Ostrowski said.

Rachelle Opp, 27, who teaches first grade at the district’s Bloomer Elementary, is one of them.

“I feel this is a step for me, that I can do, to further protect our families and further protect my students,” she said.

By getting the vaccine, Opp said, she will ensure she will be there to teach and support her students.

Opp said she has gotten advice from a college professor who participated in one of the vaccine trials, as well as from friends who are doctors and nurses who’ve gotten the vaccine, that it’s the right thing to do.

“They all have assured that this is the next step that our community needs to take in order to mitigate the spread,” she said.

Omaha Public Schools is surveying staff over winter break, spokesman Jeremy Maskel said.

Robert Miller, president of the OPS teachers union, notified members that vaccination could occur between late January and March, likely in February.

In a letter, he told members the district had not decided whether to mandate that employees get it. Employees are “highly encouraged” to do so, he said.

OPS employees would receive the Moderna version, he said.

District employees would be prioritized into tiers.

The top tier would be staff who have direct contact with students and who have not tested positive, he said. That tier includes all teachers, school-based administrators, education support professionals, transportation, nutrition and maintenance workers, he said.

The second tier would be staff with some contact with students, such as paraprofessionals and some administrators. The third would be those who have little or no contact, such as administrators who work at the Teacher Administrative Center and the superintendent, as well as those who have tested positive for COVID-19, he said.

The Douglas County Health Department is spearheading the planning for distributing the vaccine to school teachers in Douglas and Sarpy counties, spokesman Phil Rooney said.

Distribution will be different for every district, private and parochial school based on their staff counts and logistics, he said. Factors might include whether an outside drive-thru operation is possible or if a facility can be used for an inside vaccination clinic, he said.

Currently, plans call for using the Moderna vaccine — administered in two doses a month apart — for teachers and others in the second priority group, he said.

Nebraska officials hope to begin vaccinating that group around the end of January or beginning of February, said Khalilah LeGrand, director of communications for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

The state will work with local health departments to ensure an equitable distribution of the vaccine between big and small school districts, LeGrand said.

How the vaccines are distributed will depend on factors such as whether an area has ultra-cold storage and facilities for handling the vaccine, she said.

Which vaccine teachers get will depend on availability and the capacity of the entities that are handling each district’s vaccinations, she said.

Asked if education-related positions such as school janitors and cafeteria workers would be eligible to be vaccinated in the second group, she said state officials are working to clarify that.

David Jespersen, spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Education, said that while there are no state plans to mandate teachers get vaccinated, individual districts could pursue a mandate.

As for vaccinating kids, that would take legislation or action by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human services to add COVID-19 to the required immunization list, he said.

Current state law requires that each child be protected against measles, mumps, rubella, poliomyelitis, diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus by immunization prior to enrollment in a public, private or parochial school.

Seventh-graders must get a booster containing diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and an acellular pertussis vaccine.

The law allows exemptions for medical reasons and religious beliefs.

Jespersen said that the vaccination of teachers isn’t likely to bring about an easing of masking, social distancing and other health protocols during this school year, especially since there is no approved vaccine for children.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have indicated they are moving forward with vaccine trials for children.

Our top Omaha staff videos of 2020

2020 was a year none of us will soon forget. Through a global pandemic and social justice reform efforts, our way of thinking and existing has been challenged in every way. The photojournalists of the Omaha World-Herald, like every one else, have been deeply affected. We have grown through challenge and have done our best to document history. These are our most memorable videos of the year. 

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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