Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

As teachers race to get vaccinated in time to return to classrooms March 1, the former president’s lack of national strategy has some school districts faring better than others.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—In order to meet Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal of resuming in-person instruction in March, teachers need to be vaccinated against COVID-19. And in order to be fully immunized by March 1, teachers have until Feb. 8 to get their first dose. 

The administration of President Joe Biden inherited a vaccine rollout that had proceeded without a national strategy under the Trump administration, which in turn led to massive vaccine supply shortages and a patchwork of local health departments struggling to chart their own course toward ending the health crisis for their own communities. Today, an uneven reality has emerged where some Michigan teachers are on pace to meet Gov. Whitmer’s target, but other communities are scrambling to catch up as the clock to March 1 ticks down.

That countdown looms large over Kalamazoo English teacher Holly Bruning. 

“We don’t even have an expected date when we could get the vaccine,” Bruning told The ‘Gander. 

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Kalamazoo County has had an extremely short supply of the vaccine, leading to a waitlist of more than 20,000 people from just the earliest phases of the planned rollout. It could be months before it’s Bruning’s turn, though the governor is working to increase vaccine availability in the state.  

“There is a huge push to get us back in school even without vaccinations,” Bruning added.

In explaining her push to reopen schools, Gov. Whitmer has pointed to a study that compared coronavirus infection rates in Michigan and Washington schools with different forms of education—remote, in-person, or hybrid. The study did not find a strong correlation between education approach and overall rates. Even so, education professionals have pushed back against the governor’s plan to reopen schools, saying that schools could shut down even if they aren’t superspreaders, if teachers aren’t vaccinated before returning to classrooms, due to staff shortages. 

This exact scenario has happened already.

“The role of immunization is crucial,” Laurie Oldford, board member of the Port Huron Area School District, told The ‘Gander. “The reason we had to shut down in November was due to the shortage of staff. So if our teaching staff and substitutes are immunized that’s going to create a much safer environment.”

In St. Clair County, where Port Huron is located, teachers have started receiving vaccines. But Bruning has no idea when she’ll be eligible for the vaccine. That uncertainty, on its own, adds to the stress of teaching in this particular moment in history. 

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“We don’t know if we’re ending the year virtual or hybrid,” Bruning explained. “It’s frustrating to not know anything.”

Many school districts have had their plans change many times over this school year and even prepared for “rolling closures” throughout the school year, including Bruning’s. Kalamazoo initially was preparing to resume in-person instruction in November only to have a surge in coronavirus cases lead them to keep instruction virtual. 

Teachers have expressed frustration to The ‘Gander about being left out of the decision-making process by their districts. This has only made the uncertainty about when they might receive their vaccination more difficult for them. 

“Teachers haven’t been asked how we feel about returning for one third of the year,” Bruning said. “Students are struggling, but most people don’t realize that hybrid offers far less instruction time than the fully virtual option. It has to be about the collective and not just one group.”

That frustration is felt across the state. Troy teacher Caryn Leonard told Michigan Radio that though she was going to be fully immunized before March 1, she’s keenly aware that teachers like Bruning exist as well.

“I am feeling very relieved for myself, but I am also concerned that so many of my colleagues and coworkers have not been able to yet schedule theirs because the vaccines were quickly spoken for and they were not able to schedule appointments,” she said. “Because you know, we’re all tired. We’re all worn down, we’re all tired, we’re all doing the best we can. But it’s a lot.”

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Gov. Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but Whitmer has in previous statements acknowledged the tremendous strain on educational staff during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I think we have to acknowledge that every person in the education ecosystem has been stressed to the limit, has continued to serve our kids,” Gov. Whtimer told Michigan Advance, in announcing plans to add supplemental coronavirus pay to teachers’ salaries through the MI Classroom Heroes Grants. “And it was not just teachers who are usually in front of the classroom that were there. It was the support staff and parapros and bus drivers who were all pitching in to make sure that our kids who come to rely on meals at school were getting them at home..”

Bruning wants Michiganders to understand that teachers want to be back in the classroom as much as anyone, but the concern is about doing what’s best for students in such an unpredictable environment. If teachers come down with the virus and again schools shut down, the return to the classroom could further undermine education in a year rife with learning loss

“Be patient; consider the impact of returning to face-to-face instruction for all. We want to be in person, we just want to ensure our safety,” said Bruning. “This isn’t easy; it takes working together to make things work. If we can’t listen and practice empathy, then we have nothing, and have furthered our divide.”