Confusion reigned among Florida’s teachers and school workers Thursday after conflicting directives by state and federal officials about which school employees are eligible for coronavirus vaccines in the state.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged states to prioritize all school staff and child care workers for vaccines, regardless of age, and said he would use the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to ensure all in those categories receive at least one shot by the end of March.
That announcement came a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that said only K-12 school staff 50 and older would have access to shots.
DeSantis appeared to yield to Biden at a Thursday morning news conference in Citrus County, where a reporter asked about when educators younger than 50 would have access to shots in Florida.
The governor responded by saying: “The federal government put that order in. They’ve made the teachers, regardless of age, eligible. They are eligible to get vaccinated per that order.”
Soon, news reports popped up and teachers who have long been desperate for vaccines rushed to find appointments. By the afternoon, Florida Education Association president Andrew Spar said he had heard from frustrated educators across the state who were unable to sign up and unsure about their eligibility.
DeSantis had actually meant that only vaccination sites with federally supplied vaccines will abide by Biden’s directive, Meredith Beatrice, a spokesperson for DeSantis, later told the Tampa Bay Times.
All other sites run by the state and county health departments will adhere to DeSantis’ order, vaccinating only K-12 school workers who are at least 50 years old, she said. But at least one county in Tampa Bay told the Times on Thursday that it was expanding eligibility to all school employees regardless of age.
U.S. Air Force Major Docleia Gibson, spokeswoman for the service members working at Florida’s federal vaccination sites, confirmed Thursday that the sites will expand eligibility for educators regardless of age.
Thursday was the latest example of Florida’s patchwork of rules and systems for vaccination. It built atop the ongoing confusion that has defined the state’s rollout of vaccines, and on the long-held frustration that teachers have had about not being prioritized for shots.
Spar criticized DeSantis for touting, during his State of the State address Tuesday, his decision to keep schools open while many educators remain unvaccinated.
“I think we need to be clear that it was the teachers and staff who ... opened schools in the middle of a pandemic with really not a lot of direction and clarity,” Spar said. “Without knowing what was going to happen, they risked their health and the health of their families to keep our schools opened.”
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He said Florida should have prioritized teachers from the start, and particularly should now given Biden’s promise of more doses being shipped to the state after the recent approval of a third, one-dose vaccine by Johnson & Johnson.
But Spar doesn’t see that happening, he said. “Even as the president of the United States has said more vaccines are being distributed, and therefore you need to include educators, our governor is still not making it easy for educators to get vaccinated.”
Similar sentiments were shared by members of United Faculty Florida, the union that represents more than 20,000 higher education instructors across the state and has been fighting for their access to shots as universities plan to reopen.
“If the Florida governor is working on its citizens’ behalf to prioritize vaccination needs in the state equitably and thereby reopening the state for a healthy, strong, and sustainable economic recovery, we ask for common sense to prevail,” Roscoe Hightower, Jr., president of the union’s chapter at Florida A&M University, wrote in a statement. “Higher education faculty must be included with K-12 personnel when it comes to vaccine distribution in the great state of Florida.”
Dawn Bergeron, union president at St. Johns River State College wrote that, “The college community is equally at risk, and in some cases, more vulnerable” because of older students whose age makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
The CVS Pharmacy chain, which is getting its vaccines directly from the federal government, already began vaccinating Florida teachers under the age of 50 this week, following Biden’s comments. It’s also offering doses to day care and preschool employees.
”Appointments are all booked up. As supply increases from the federal government, we’ll open more locations and more appointments,” spokeswoman Tara Burke said Thursday.
Other retailers that are part of the federal program appear to be following suit. A Walmart spokeswoman sent a list of eligible groups that included “educators” with no age restrictions listed. On Walmart’s vaccine website, the eligibility list includes a note under “educators” that said it includes pre-primary schools and Early Head Start programs among others, and includes teachers, staff and bus drivers.
Publix also announced it was expanding eligibility to “all Florida K-12 and child care teachers and personnel.”
Pinellas County School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said she got emails throughout the day Thursday from school employees asking for clarity on their eligibility. And she understands how conflicting information has caused confusion.
”I’ve got educators asking me what is happening and where can I get my shots?” Cook said. “I think everyone’s feeling their way right now.”
The Pinellas health department did not provide information about which educators it will vaccinate.
In Hillsborough, spokesman Kevin Watler said the health department will offer shots to all school employees — including day care workers and educators from private and charter schools — regardless of age, at its two sites at Ed Radice Sports Complex in Tampa and Vance Vogel Sports Complex in Gibsonton.
Appointments and proof of eligibility, such as a paystub or employee ID card, are required. Those who show up without proof of employment will be turned away, officials said. An account and appointment can be made at patientportalfl.com.
School districts, however, appeared to be largely in the dark late Thursday about who is eligible, where, and what to tell their employees.
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