State leaders around the U.S. are increasingly pushing for schools to reopen this winter as teachers begin to gain access to the vaccine against the raging pandemic.
Ohio's governor offered to give vaccinations to teachers at the start of February, provided their school districts agree to resume at least some in-person instruction by March 1. In Arizona, where teachers began receiving shots this week, the governor warned schools that he expects students back in the classroom despite objections from top education officials and the highest covid-19 diagnosis rate in the nation over the past week.
"We will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure," said Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. "Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic."
The U.S. recorded an all-time, one-day high of 4,327 deaths on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The nation's overall death toll from covid-19 has topped 380,000, closing in fast on the number of Americans killed in World War II. Confirmed infections have reached about 23 million.
President-elect Joe Biden initially pledged to reopen a majority of the nation's schools in his first 100 days but recently revised the goal to most of the country's kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools. He has said teachers should be eligible for vaccinations as soon as possible after those who are at highest risk.
Some states aren't waiting, but the process can be scattershot.
Meika Mark, a ninth-grade English teacher in Orange County, N.Y., got vaccinated Tuesday at a hospital, using a link a friend texted her.
"It's just word of mouth: 'Here's a link and hopefully you get a slot,'" said Mark, who contracted the virus in March and spent the rest of the school year teaching remotely. "I know of a woman who had her husband sit in front of a computer literally all day and just click the refresh button until an appointment came up."
Mark, 34, is now doing some in-person teaching and is grateful for the added layer of protection.
"I told my students before that every day is one day closer to normalcy," she said. "I think if we just remind ourselves of that, it just helps to pause and live in the moment for a minute."
High school band director Michael Crookston was among the first teachers to get a vaccination in Utah, which is among the earliest states to give priority to educators. Crookston has been in the classroom since the new school year began, despite having diabetes, which puts him at greater risk from the coronavirus.
"It's been a thing I've been looking forward to, a little bit like Christmas," said Crookston, who teaches at Davis High School, north of Salt Lake City, where he used a parent's donation to buy 12 air filters for his band room, as well as masks and covers for students' instruments.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has said he wants to vaccinate all teachers by the end of February.
Salt Lake City has been hit hard by the virus and was the only district in Utah to stay all-remote this school year. That has angered some GOP leaders, who have threatened to deny the city's teachers the $1,500 bonuses promised to the state's educators.
An estimated 10.3 million Americans have received their first shots of the vaccine, or about 3% of the population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is an increase of about 1 million from the day before, indicating the vaccination drive is picking up speed after a slow start.
But the U.S. is still well short of the hundreds of millions who experts say will need to be inoculated to vanquish the outbreak.
A report released Wednesday by the CDC adds to the evidence suggesting that children aren't the main drivers of community transmission. It found that increases in reported cases among adults were not preceded by increases among children and teens. Young adults, it appears, may contribute more to the spread than children do.
Chicago began a phased-in reopening of its schools this week, with about 6,000 prekindergarten and special-education students expected to return to classrooms and other grades set to follow in the coming weeks. Illinois teachers are not eligible for vaccines yet, but Chicago officials are providing virus tests on school grounds for staff members.
Chicago teachers who were punished for refusing to show up for classes over covid-19 concerns demonstrated Wednesday outside the School Board president's home. Roughly 150 employees have been docked pay and locked out of the school system, meaning they can't teach remotely either.
"I don't believe it's safe to reopen the schools. I don't believe it's safe for my family, I live with an elderly mom. I don't believe it is safe for the city's children or their families," said Kristin Roberts, a prekindergarten teacher.
New York state expanded vaccine eligibility to teachers this week. But in New York City, the nation's largest school district, with 1.1 million students, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday that middle and high schools will remain closed indefinitely.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a $2 billion plan to pay for testing, protective equipment and other safety enhancements to reopen the lowest grades as soon as Feb. 16.
But educators said it is too soon to know when California's 600,000 teachers can expect to be vaccinated. Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said vaccinations have to come first, then schools can talk about reopening.Gallery: Javits Center vaccine site
"We cannot put our own lives, the lives of our students, and our communities at risk during what is clearly an escalating crisis in our state," the union leader said.
California's rollout of vaccines has been slower than anticipated, with the first phase, involving health care workers and nursing-home residents, still underway.
On Wednesday, Chiefs of Change, a bipartisan group of school administrators, called on state and federal officials to make teachers and other school employees immediately eligible for vaccinations and provide more resources to conduct testing and contact tracing in school districts.
"Those individuals are very uncomfortable and they're very scared about coming back into school, no matter how safe we make it," said Robert Runcie, superintendent of public schools in Broward County, Fla.
SENIOR CITIZENS FIRST
Meanwhile, California is immediately allowing residents 65 and older to get scarce coronavirus vaccines, Newsom announced Wednesday.
The move puts senior citizens in line before emergency workers, teachers, child care providers and food and agriculture workers even as counties complain they already don't have enough doses to go around.
"There is no higher priority than efficiently and equitably distributing these vaccines as quickly as possible to those who face the gravest consequences," Newsom said in a statement. "To those not yet eligible for vaccines, your turn is coming. We are doing everything we can to bring more vaccine into the state."
While health care workers and those in nursing homes and other congregate living facilities can still can be vaccinated, state officials are expanding the program to those 65 and up because they are at the greatest risk of being hospitalized and dying. Orange County already had said it would swiftly move to vaccinate people 65 and older.
California has seen virus cases and hospitalizations explode since Thanksgiving, though in recent days the numbers have flattened.
It reported another 589 deaths Wednesday, raising the total to 31,102. It recorded 33,751 new infections, some that will inevitably lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.
"With our hospitals crowded and ICUs full, we need to focus on vaccinating Californians who are at highest risk of becoming hospitalized to alleviate stress on our health care facilities," said Dr. Tomas Aragon, director of the California Department of Public Health and the state's public health officer. "Prioritizing individuals age 65 and older will reduce hospitalizations and save lives."
The moves follows recommendations Tuesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it comes after members of a state advisory panel on Tuesday worried that adding senior citizens inevitably will delay vaccines for others.
Newsom also announced a new system to let people know if they are eligible to receive a vaccine, to start next week.
If residents are not yet eligible, the system will allow them to register for a text or email notification when they are.
In Florida, some officials worry tourists and day-trippers are visiting the state solely to get vaccinated. Florida was one of the first states to throw open vaccine eligibility to members of the general public over 65.
But Gov. Ron DeSantis said stories of people flying to Florida, getting vaccinated and returning home are overblown. While there have been scattered reports of such interlopers, DeSantis said the nonresidents who are getting shots are almost entirely "snowbirds," residents who live in the state for several months during the winter and who could infect others if they aren't vaccinated.
"I think it's totally fine if they wanted to" be vaccinated, the Republican governor said at a recent news conference. "It's not like they're just vacationing for two weeks. ... They have relationships with doctors. They get medical care in Florida. ... So that's a little bit different than somebody that's just doing tourism."
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is contemplating a run against DeSantis next year, said her office is getting numerous complaints from Floridians who are angry that nonresidents are getting shots and who allege that some are not 65 or older. That is on top of complaints that vaccination appointments are gobbled up as soon as they are posted while phone and online registration systems keep crashing.
"This is a major issue," Fried said. "We are seeing lines all across the state of Florida. ... I've talked to seniors who've waited hours upon hours."
About 4% of the 650,000 people who have been inoculated in Florida list an out-of-state residence, health department records released this week show. About 2% of both the 1.5 million people who have been diagnosed in Florida with covid-19 and the nearly 24,000 who have died there of the disease have been nonresidents.
Information for this article was contributed by Carolyn Thompson, Sophia Tareen, Jocelyn Gecker, Kathleen Ronayne, Janie Har, Amy Taxin, Don Thompson, Adam Beam, Terry Spencer, Tamara Lush, Bobby Caina Calvan, Adriana Gomez Licon, Gisela Salomon, Kelli Kennedy and Haleluya Hadero of The Associated Press.