Hampden Academy history teacher Beth Kilgore started her 10-day quarantine Thursday morning after finding out that she had been in contact with someone at school Wednesday who had tested positive for COVID-19. But as she started her quarantine, she learned that she and fellow educators would now be eligible to get vaccinated.
“I’m relieved and it’s pretty timely,” Kilgore said. “Just the sheer number of people that I come in contact with on a daily basis, I think, really justifies pushing teachers closer to the front of the line.”
Maine was initially in the minority of states not prioritizing vaccinations for teachers after it switched to a strictly age-based eligibility system last week. But after President Joe Biden instructed states to offer vaccinations to educators on Tuesday, Gov. Janet Mills announced the following day that teachers, bus drivers and other school staff, as well as child care workers, would be eligible to be vaccinated regardless of their age.
Four public school teachers and two district leaders said Thursday they were relieved. As new cases decline, they said they’re hearing more from community members that they want schools to be open in person full time. But opening full-time was a risk without offering teachers the chance to be vaccinated, they said.
Since the fall, Jesse Hargrove has been teaching social studies at Hermon High School in person four days a week and remotely on Mondays. While he hasn’t felt unsafe because of the school’s safety protocols, vaccinations for school staff are key to allowing schools to eventually offer more in-person instruction, he said.
“We have no control, no authority over what our students and their families do when they’re not in school,” Hargrove said. “So knowing that there is still a potential risk, especially for some of our more vulnerable teacher populations, it’s important for them to be vaccinated.”
The reason Maine initially decided against prioritizing teachers was the relatively safe environment schools have created by following strict masking, social distancing and cleaning protocols throughout the school year, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah told Maine Education Association members in February. Schools have not proven to be virus super-spreaders, but three of the four teachers who spoke with the Bangor Daily News on Thursday have had to quarantine over the past few months after coming into contact with someone at school who tested positive for COVID-19.
“I have felt pretty safe myself,” said music teacher Matthew Madore, who teaches in-person at Earl C. McGraw and George B. Weatherbee elementary schools in Hampden. “But at the same time, I would feel a lot more relaxed and less anxious if I had my vaccine and I knew that I could go about my day and teach and not have to have that worry in the back of my mind.”
The previous age-based system would have meant that some teachers, such as Madore, 39, and Rose Skilling, 27, who teaches music at Gorham Middle School, would not become eligible for the vaccine until the end of the school year.
“Even though I know age plays a factor in risk and that hopefully helps me, I also know that I see close to 100 students a week,” Skilling said. “So it’s definitely a good feeling to have that protection.”
Vaccinations for teachers will not automatically mean that schools reopen for full-time, in-person instruction, according to school leaders in Brewer and the Hampden area, where students attend in person part-time.
The main factor preventing that is the physical distancing that requires smaller classes, said Regan Nickels, superintendent of Regional School Unit 22 in the Hampden area.
“I think how vaccination interacts with spacing is the question,” Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer said. “If that formula doesn’t change, then we would still be in a similar place to maintain compliance.”
However, after educators have been vaccinated, district leaders expect the number of unexpected school closures and people needing to quarantine due to COVID-19 cases to sharply decline.
“Once the vaccination protocol has been fulfilled and enough time has gone by since the second vaccination, people are exempted from needing to quarantine,” Nickels said. “So that will be a significant help to us for keeping staff on our campuses.”
Nickels said about 80 percent of teachers and school staff have said they would like to be vaccinated in a survey she conducted of RSU 22 staff.