Prince William County schools announced Tuesday it has secured about 3,000 COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers and staff over the next two weeks – enough to cover just fewer than half of the 7,000 staff members currently working inside county schools.
The move will speed up the vaccination process by a few weeks for about a quarter for the school division’s total 12,000 staff members, all of whom were already scheduled to have access to vaccinations at INOVA Fairfax hospital beginning on Saturday, Jan. 30.
School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef said the vaccinations were secured after he and other local officials expressed their frustration with local hospitals and the Prince William Health District that Prince William teachers and staff, some of whom are already teaching in school buildings, have had to wait for vaccines behind teachers in nearby counties where schools are still mostly all-virtual.
“They understand we wanted our teachers vaccinated sooner if possible,” Lateef said. “They all recognize that [Prince William teachers and staff] are working in schools in-person, and it seemed unfair.”
The accelerated timeline was welcome news to Price William Education Association Vice President Charles Ronco, who called the faster access to vaccines for some staff members “fantastic.”
But Ronco said speeding vaccinations up for some teachers and staff won’t change the teacher union’s opposition to schools remaining open for in-person instruction as local COVID-19 cases continue to surge.
“The vaccine is fantastic, it’s great, but it isn’t going to be implemented nearly fast enough to keep everyone safe,” Ronco said. “Until his curve is flipped and we’re beating this pandemic, it is not a safe practice to continue putting people in harm’s way.”
The PWEA has called for the school division to keep most classes virtual since the start of the school year and has amplified those calls as local COVID-19 metrics have trended ever higher.
The Prince William Health District has the highest rate of infection per capita in Northern Virginia, a measure that hit 105 on Tuesday, exceeding 100 for the first time. The statewide rate was 72.3 on Tuesday.
The local percent-positivity rate on COVID-19 tests fell to 15.9% on Tuesday, which is now equal with that of Stafford and Spotsylvania counties. The rate hit 20% in recent weeks and was the highest in the region for much of the last few months.
The number COVID-19 cases in the community and in the school division continue to climb, however, with the county adding more than 300 cases daily. The county added more than 3,000 new COVID-19 cases in the past week.
According to the school division’s own COVID-19 dashboard, more than 530 cases have been reported among students and teachers since Jan. 1.
The PWEA is calling for middle and high school instruction to remain virtual until the end of April and for “Tier 1” teachers, those with documented underlying health conditions, and “Tier 2” teachers, those with vulnerable family members, to teach virtually for the remainder of the school year.
The union is also calling for all in-person classes to revert to virtual learning until the end of March because of rising COVID-19 cases and to provide hazard pay to all staff members still required to work in school buildings.
Ronco, who is working virtually as a math teacher at Unity Reed High School, said the PWEA is concerned not only about teachers’ and staff members’ health but also that of the entire community as local COVID-19 metrics remain stubbornly high.
He also noted that because COVID-19 vaccinations require a two-shot series spaced three to four weeks apart, the shots won’t provide immunity until a week or more after the second shots are administered.
The timeline means that even teachers and staff members who get vaccinated this weekend won’t have full immunity until late February or early March.
“Our members are scared and when people are scared, it’s hard to do your job,” Ronco said. “… We need to make sure that people are safe. Right now, with the data being what it is now, it’s hard to believe anyone is safe.”
Lateef, a Democrat whom the PWEA endorsed in the 2019 election, acknowledged Tuesday that many teachers are unhappy with his push to return students to in-person learning amid the pandemic.
Still, Lateef said he is weighing the risks of having students and teachers in schools with what he said is the “learning loss” associated with online learning.
“I have parents saying [we] don’t care about their kids,” Lateef said when asked how he would respond to teachers who say the school board hasn't shown enough concern for teachers.
“It’s not an easy problem to manage. It’s a complex situation,” Lateef added.
Earlier this month, the county’s schools brought second- and third-grade students back into schools on a hybrid schedule, allowing them to attend in-person classes two days a week while learning from home the other three.
They joined thousands of students already learning in-person across the county, including students in special education, those learning English and students in pre-K through first grades. Students may also remain virtual if they wish.
The school board voted on Jan. 13 to delay the return of students in grades four through 12 to schools for hybrid instruction by at least one month. The school board will review the decision during their upcoming Feb. 17 meeting.
Lateef said he hoped getting vaccinations underway would allow the school division to return more students to schools in early March, but acknowledged the situation “is fluid” and will depend on the supply of vaccine doses received by both Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center, which is slated to give the extra shots over the next two weekends, and INOVA Fairfax. Both the state health department and local governments were disappointed this week when the amount of vaccine doses delivered from the federal government was lower than requested or expected.
Both the Prince William Health District and local hospitals received fewer doses of vaccine to distribute this week, resulting in a slower-than-expected vaccine rollout.
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