The majority of Maine K-12 school employees will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in May with a plan to help them get shots remaining vague as the state aims to start regional clinics for teachers next week.
Teachers and other school staff were the only frontline workers to win somewhat of a carveout in Gov. Janet Mills’ age-based vaccination plan announced on Friday. It will open shots to people aged 60 and older as of Wednesday with younger people following in the months ahead, though school employees must qualify by age in order to get the vaccine.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services said in a Friday communication to health providers the state wants to set up clinics for teachers and staff in the nine superintendent regions with the aim of holding clinics on Fridays and weekends to accommodate schedules.
The effort was couched by the Democratic governor and her administration as a path to safe full-time in-person learning, although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccinations are not required for that to happen. While many states and large cities have seen controversy over the return to in-person learning, it has not been a major issue to date in Maine.
TRACKING THE CORONAVIRUS IN MAINE
But most teachers will not be eligible for vaccines until the month before school gets out. Despite a goal of starting the new clinics next week, there are few details about how Maine will handle this group. One major provider said adding weekend clinics would be a staffing challenge and Bangor’s school leader said she would prefer clinics to not be held in schools.
The Maine Education Association hailed Mills’ plan when she unveiled it, but it “hasn’t yet heard exactly how the expedited lanes for educators will work” and if the rollout does not go as planned, the teachers’ union will “will advocate using all possible avenues for prioritization for all its members immediately,” President Grace Leavitt said on Monday.
“Our school staff must be a priority if we intend to keep schools open,” she said.
Seven in 10 Maine teachers and school staff will be eligible by May under the state’s plan. Effectively all of them will be eligible in July. Some districts have been preparing for staff vaccinations for weeks. Bangor School Department Interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg said she has a list of staff interested in getting the vaccine when available.
“We want schools to be the safest they can possibly be,” she said. “We continue to advocate that educators be considered in the vaccination process.”
The Friday communication indicates teachers and staff could be vaccinated at on-site clinics, through a local provider or on special days at mass vaccination sites. It is not clear how many clinics the state intends to create within the nine districts, which vary greatly in geographic size. One, for example, includes all of Penobscot, Piscataquis and Somerset counties.
A Maine Department of Education spokesperson said details are still being finalized but the department will “work closely” with the health department to provide opportunities and with school districts to verify employment.
The state should be mindful of travel challenges those districts could create, said Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association. If clinics are in schools, the state will have to navigate end-of-school bus and student pickup traffic. Eligible teachers could also pursue vaccines through larger, existing clinics.
While Harris-Smedberg said she would “love to see anyone working with students” vaccinated, she said the district would like to see appointments staggered for staffing purposes. She also said she would prefer any clinics to be held at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, where Northern Light Health is managing a mass vaccination site, rather than at a school.
Spokespeople for two of Maine’s biggest vaccine providers — Northern Light and Portland-based MaineHealth — say the systems are interested in working with the state to provide vaccines but are awaiting further information on how they might be involved.
But carving time and vaccines out for a specific group could be challenging for already stretched clinics. Northern Light spokesperson Suzanne Spruce said the system currently is not setting aside vaccines for education staff. The system also has “many” clinics scheduled and is not interested in adding evening or Sunday hours “if that can be avoided,” Spruce said.
“Staffing the clinics is a big lift,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified Bangor School District Interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg’s first name.