Teachers and school employees most likely to come face-to-face with students in the coming weeks got their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday, prompting a range of emotions.
Among them, education workers said: Tentative hope. Fear. Gratitude. Guilt. Relief.
Diana Rowey, a music teacher at Southeast Portland’s Woodstock Elementary, said she’s struggled at times with feelings of isolation and concern for the future. Like the rest of her colleagues across the district, she’s interacted with her students through a screen and said the months of virtual teaching have made her value the in-person time of years past that much more.
“It just makes me appreciate the community building and joyful times that we had in the classroom even more,” Rowey said.
Rowey has underlying medical conditions, she said, making it particularly important that she get vaccinated before she can go back to in-person teaching.
She was among the thousands of education sector employees from across the three-county metro area who were given appointments for the mass vaccination at the Oregon Convention Center. It opened to the first in that group – people who work in K-12 education and in day cares and preschools – just days after Gov. Kate Brown announced they would be placed ahead of seniors on the state’s priority list.
The Oregon Convention Center teemed with National Guard reservists as school employees stood in line, spaced at least six feet apart, to check in for their vaccine appointments early in the morning.
The educators were ferried into the facility’s cavernous ballroom, where Legacy Health and Providence Medical Group staff injected them with a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. After waiting 15 minutes in case they had a reaction and scheduling their appointment for a second dose, the inoculated educators were free to go.
Amanda Shwetzer, the secretary and registrar at Glencoe Elementary, has also been working from home since last March when Brown ordered the state’s public schools to shutter.
Shwetzer told The Oregonian/OregonLive she’s happy she and her colleagues can get a vaccine. But she said it “breaks my heart” that she’s been inoculated while her mother, who lives in a senior care home, has not.
“If I could’ve given her my shot, I would have,” Shwetzer said.
Shwetzer said it’s essential she and her colleagues get vaccinated, otherwise they won’t feel comfortable returning to work. A union poll of Portland Public Schools teachers showed only about 14% of the district’s educators were willing to return to classrooms in a limited capacity, two hours at a time.
That was back in December when coronavirus infections were double what they are now and it was unclear when Oregonians would begin receiving vaccine doses. The high case counts may not have been a factor, as only 16% of educators polled said they’d feel comfortable returning to classrooms if case counts fell.
The union did not survey its members on whether vaccinations were a factor in their willingness to work on-site.
Multiple studies have found children younger than 10 do not spread coronavirus nearly as commonly a preteens, teenagers and adults. The Oregon Health Authority reported 20 coronavirus cases among the 50,000 or so public school students who regularly attended class in-person in December and so far in January.
Forty-three employees of those schools tested positive over the same time period, although the agency has not traced infections back to classrooms.
Kathy Price, an administrative assistant at the Cottonwood School, interacts regularly with multiple students when class is in session at the South Portland charter school.
She wears a lot of hats, she told The Oregonian/OregonLive. Price substitutes for absent teachers, runs disciplinary interventions for students and provides them with medical care.
She misses seeing her students and felt sad that kids have been growing and changing without her being able to witness their development.
“I just want to be around the kids again,” Price said.
That’s why Price said she was willing to get inoculated, even though she has reservations about the vaccine’s safety and potential long-term effects.
“The whole thing is just so new,” Price said. “It’s kind of a relief that it’s happening. But, at the same time, it’s kind of the unknown.”
Robin Kobrowski, a principal in the Beaverton School District, said much of her work during distance learning has involved giving her staff emotional support, including reaching out to people who might be struggling and developing relationships with everybody.
Many of her 75 teachers, administrators, assistants and other educators at the Springville K-8 school are grateful they can get vaccinated “knowing that all the citizens in Oregon need it,” Kobrowski said.
The Oregon Convention Center is expected to administer about 2,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine per day to school district employees and early childhood workers from throughout the Portland metro area.
There are about 40,000 eligible educators in the area plus another 20,000 or so childcare and preschool workers. Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, employs about 3,600.
The district broke up its vaccine distribution list into four “waves,” with elementary educators and those who volunteered for its limited in-person sessions, two hours per day for classes composed of students with an acute need for academic support.
Portland Public Schools officials expect it will take at least four weeks for every educator in the district to be vaccinated and state officials projected an even longer timetable, estimating only about three-fourths of education sector workers, at most, will get a first dose by the end of the first four weeks.
Oregon’s vaccination efforts are just one of many logistical hurdles districts must clear before mounting a wide-scale reopening of schools.
Most districts have prioritized a return for elementary schoolers, according to their reopening plans.
In Portland Public Schools, officials say they’re aiming to begin offering in-person options for families of fifth graders and younger students in early February.
A first-grade teacher who received a first dose Wednesday and received the second dose precisely on schedule would be considered fully immunized by March 3.
In the Lake Oswego district, Superintendent Lora De La Cruz announced elementary school students will begin in-person classes in late February, postponing earlier plans after fierce backlash from the teachers union.
Both De La Cruz and Portland Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero have said vaccinations are a critical step in returning to classrooms.
Union leaders say many educators are terrified at the prospect of returning to classrooms unvaccinated.
“Educators who have devoted years of their lives to the education of Lake Oswego children were talking about leaving the classroom,” Lake Oswego Education Association President Kelly Fitzsimmons said after the district pushed back its reopening plans.
Brooke Herbert contributed to this report.
— Eder Campuzano and Fedor Zarkhin