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Ohio Puts Teachers At The Front Of The COVID-19 Vaccine Line

NOEL KING, HOST:

The CDC is recommending that teachers as essential workers be put near the front of the line to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Ohio is one of the states following that guidance. They're trying to start vaccinating school staff later this month, but this plan could run into problems there. Here's Jenny Hamel of member station WCPN Ideastream in Cleveland.

JENNY HAMEL, BYLINE: Even though she's talking to her students through a computer screen, sixth-grade math teacher Shauntina Thornton tries to make class as fun as possible.

SHAUNTINA THORNTON: You all are doing so well. Hit them cameras so I can see you.

HAMEL: Still, it's no replacement for being together in a classroom. What Thornton misses is the interpersonal physical part of school.

THORNTON: Even as something simple as helping them with lockers. This is the first group of sixth-graders I will not have taught them how to do the combination lock.

HAMEL: This is the situation at the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which serves roughly 35,000 students. Like other big urban districts in the state, Cleveland schools have been completely remote this year. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has called for teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, anyone else who comes into contact with students, to be included in the next wave of COVID-19 vaccinations. And Thornton says she's good with that.

THORNTON: As long as this is going to have some benefit for the student, I'm good. It wouldn't be right for us not to do it.

HAMEL: The governor's plan puts teachers and staff near the front of the distribution line, which puts Ohio in step with states like Utah, California and New York. The goal is to start vaccinating teachers and staff by the end of the month and to have students back in school in March, either full time or as part of a hybrid model. Shari Obrenski is head of the union representing teachers in Cleveland. She questions to DeWine's time frame, especially if staff need two shots each. And thus far, the vaccination rate in the state has been slow.

SHARI OBRENSKI: We also need to be concerned with the other aspects of re-opening. The need for appropriate ventilation is still going to be there. Maintaining social distance and mask wearing is still going to be necessary.

HAMEL: And Obrenski says many teachers don't want to get the vaccine because of a historic and racially based mistrust of the medical system or because they don't want to be guinea pigs for a vaccine developed in under a year. And then there's the students. Even if they're masked with safety protocols in place, Cleveland educators like Rita Berry worries about the students spreading the virus amongst each other.

RITA BERRY: Because a lot of our kids are being raised by grandparents and older, you know, those people that are not in line to be vaccinated. So what do you do? You still have the problem of them taking it back home to someone else.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So they all have very different backstories, but they all belong to a world I've created called Blammo (ph).

HAMEL: Linda Zolten Wood's 14-year-old shares an art project with their teacher during an online class. As for a return to in-person learning, Wood says her kid has breathing issues and her husband has asthma, which makes the family high risk.

LINDA ZOLTEN WOOD: There is no way we're going to have our kid exposed to somebody else who has it and bring it home. I'm so glad that the teachers are going to get vaccinated. Until all the students are vaccinated, it's not happening, not for us.

HAMEL: So here in Cleveland, there are obviously obstacles to getting all kids back in school. But there is consensus that educators ought to be prioritized as the essential workers that they are.

For NPR News, I'm Jenny Hamel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.