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Support builds for Florida teachers to get vaccinated sooner

Gov. Ron DeSantis has turned away requests to move educators to a higher priority.
This photo of a Newsome High classroom in October illustrates how difficult it is to maintain social distance in schools. The image was included in a tweet by superintendent Addison Davis. More than 75 COVID-19 cases have been reported at Newsome this year.
This photo of a Newsome High classroom in October illustrates how difficult it is to maintain social distance in schools. The image was included in a tweet by superintendent Addison Davis. More than 75 COVID-19 cases have been reported at Newsome this year. [ Hillsborough County School District ]
Published Jan. 9

Since the summer, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has hammered home his view that schools must remain open if the state’s economy has any chance of reviving and thriving.

When pressed to prioritize the people who keep those schools running for coronavirus vaccinations, DeSantis has insisted that Floridians at greater risk — particularly health care workers and residents over age 65 — should come first.

That stance has dismayed educators across the Tampa Bay region, who continue to encourage state leaders to push school employees higher up the list.

More than 1,100 Pinellas County teachers have signed a petition urging the governor to quickly get the vaccinations into educators’ arms. Their union is collecting more signatures before sending the document to Tallahassee.

“We should be classified as essential workers and put to the top, if they want schools open,” said Joanne McCall, the union’s executive director. “We need safe working environments for our employees, as well as our students.”

The Pinellas School Board also is putting together a letter to the governor urging a higher priority for teachers. It’s on their Tuesday agenda for consideration.

“I believe they’re as much as frontline personnel as our medical workers,” board member Nicole Carr said in support of the concept.

The board and union follow in the steps of superintendent Mike Grego, who reached out to DeSantis in mid-December on the subject. Writing as president of the state superintendents association, Grego reminded the governor of the desire to have students continue with full access to their academic programs throughout the year.

“For this to happen, the wellness of the employees in our school districts is vital,” he wrote.

In an interview, Grego stressed that he was talking about more than teachers. He included bus drivers, food service workers and others.

“For the ability to keep schools open, we want to prioritize people who have direct student contact,” he explained.

Hillsborough County superintendent Addison Davis and School Board chairwoman Lynn Gray sent a similar missive to the governor on Dec. 17. They urged him to include school teachers and support staff in the second round of vaccinations, following the health care workers and long-term care residents.

“As you are aware, each time one of our education community members contracts COVID-19, it diminishes the quality of the education experience for our students and jeopardizes the health and life of our educational team members,” they wrote.

Gray said the district had not received a response, except to hear DeSantis’ news conference comments.

“I’m very concerned,” said Gray, a retired teacher, noting how difficult it is for people on the priority list to get a vaccination.

Instead of waiting, she said, she had contacted U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor to seek ways to get the vaccines directly into school nurses’ offices so employees and perhaps students can have easier access.

“If you prioritize education, which you should, then we need to pay attention to teachers stat,” Gray said.

Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Rob Kriete said his group is working with the Florida Education Association to leverage efforts to pressure the governor.

No one should be forced to take a vaccination, Kriete said. “But with the work that our teachers are doing, we believe they should have the right to get the vaccine before the general public.”

With limited ability to social distance while in enclosed spaced with dozens of children, he said, teachers are at risk every day, and that fact must be recognized.

Pasco County superintendent Kurt Browning said he had not delivered any letters to anyone, though he was contemplating the idea. His administration has spent more time working with local health department officials to see if they can work out an arrangement for school workers, Pasco board members said.

“We’re going to try to offer the vaccine through the (district’s) six clinics and three testing centers,” said board member Colleen Beaudoin.

Don Peace, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, said his association had not taken any formal steps regarding the vaccination, though it supports getting them to educators as soon as possible.

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