Schoolteachers and staff in metro Omaha and Lincoln will be able to breathe a sigh of relief after this weekend as the state hits an important milestone in the COVID-19 vaccination effort.
The vast majority of public and private K-12 educators in those areas who wanted a vaccine will have gotten at least a first dose, according to a check of school districts and the Archdiocese of Omaha.
Papillion La Vista Community Schools spokeswoman Annette Eyman called it “a huge morale booster.”
“I’ve been at those clinics all day, every day, and staff are excited to be at this point,” Eyman said. “It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel.”
While the vaccination progress is encouraging, Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt this week cautioned school officials about relaxing protocols that have kept schools open.
Masking and social distancing have kept schools open, Blomstedt said, and the state will keep quarantine rules in place.
“Those things helped us through the winter sports season,” he said. “My guess is it will help us get through the rest of the year.”
The state prioritized educators as essential workers for early vaccination, but they had to wait their turn. Ahead of them on the state’s priority list were first responders, utility workers and the staff of homeless shelters and corrections facilities.
The state’s primary focus has been on vaccinating the elderly because of their vulnerability to the disease.
The Omaha, Westside, Douglas County West, Papillion-La Vista, Millard, Lincoln, Bennington, Elkhorn, Ralston and Gretna districts all reported this week that they would largely have their initial vaccinations completed after this weekend. Bellevue Public Schools officials reported they expect to be done by the end of March.
Springfield Platteview school officials says they'll complete their initial vaccinations by March 27.
Catholic school educators who asked for the vaccine all will have had the opportunity to get their first dose by this weekend, said Superintendent of Schools Vickie Kauffold.
“As of this week, there are really just a few stragglers who are signing up with either Kohll’s (Pharmacy) during the week or with the big distribution clinic at UNMC this weekend,” she said.
OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan told the OPS school board this week that this will be the last weekend that the Douglas County Health Department focuses on educators before moving on to other priority groups.
“At this point,” Logan said, “everyone who has requested a vaccine has been able to get one through our clinic.”
Logan said some employees chose to get their shots through Hy-Vee or other places.
The Omaha Education Association had opposed reopening the district’s schools to five-day, in-person learning before all teachers were vaccinated. OPS, however, returned last month to five-day, in-person learning for the bulk of its students, with elementary and middle school students returning Feb. 2 and high school students Feb. 17.
Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, is happy for the vaccination progress.
“Woohoo!” Benson said.
Some parts of Nebraska are ahead of the metro areas in vaccinating educators, which Benson attributes to lower demand for vaccine in those areas.
About 85% of the staff members in the metro Omaha and Lincoln areas wanted the vaccine, she said. In some parts of the state, she said, educator interest in the vaccines was as low as 50% to 70%.
“In urban areas, it was highly sought-after since Day 1,” she said.
Benson said vaccination of teachers “means that our classrooms will be safer.”
Although many district leaders have said schools didn’t see significant viral spread, Benson said she’s not convinced.
“I have a tendency not to believe that, as many staff as we’ve had out with COVID or with quarantine,” she said.
Teachers will know they’re safe in school now, she said.
Benson added, however, that schools shouldn’t relax social distancing and masking protocols.
“That is very important that we keep those protocols in place,” she said.
Benson noted there’s still nine weeks left of school.
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