The pandemic has exposed myriad societal problems. The recovery will identify more. But there is some light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. To get there, we must address one of the most evident problems at this stage in the pandemic, and that is the availability of the vaccine and the ability to distribute it across communities and into the arms of citizens.
It is of course imperative that our first responders, essential workers, medical workers, medically vulnerable, and senior citizens receive the vaccine first. But after these groups, those who work in public and private schools — K-12 schools, colleges, universities, day-care centers and other educational institutions — should be provided vaccinations next. Vaccinating those who work with students means increasing the possibility of in-person education. It also means we can begin the long road to remediating the academic and social-emotional deficits resulting from a year without consistent in-person schooling.
From a logistical point of view, New Jersey’s schools are ideal vaccination locations. Many districts have adequate parking, large indoor spaces, and staffing and communications capabilities that make them conducive for designated vaccination sites. Schools deal with large-scale events and the logistics associated with them all the time. We plan student orientations, graduations, sporting events and musicals that involve hundreds of people in attendance at one time.
Let’s also not forget that we move hundreds of students and staff in and out of our schools daily, and transport students across our towns. School districts and our schools know how to plan for and set up large events, staff them, run them, and keep people safe. And during this pandemic, districts have learned to manage buildings while adhering to strict guidelines to keep people safe.
Our schools should become essential vaccination sites for our teachers and staff, as well as our community members. Our schools know our community members, and our community members know us. There is comfort in, and less anxiety associated with, going to a place you know. Our community members often have the means to get to a school in the community but may not have the ability to get to a mega-site. They know how to navigate in and out of our facilities. Comfort and familiarity with their local schools may help our community members in their willingness to get vaccinated. Having to travel to an unknown location may delay or diminish the chances of some of our community members going to get the vaccination.
Municipalities, schools can collaborate
In Hamilton Township School District (HTSD), Mercer County, we are prepared to vaccinate our faculty and staff, and more than ready to assist our community. As a result of an overwhelming response to a district signup, we have coordinated and planned with Hamilton Township’s health department to vaccinate our faculty and staff as soon as vaccines are available to us. With the township and HTSD collaborating, we have everything we need in place — except the vaccine. Together, we have maximized resources from school nurses prepared to provide the majority of vaccinations as well as the township, which will provide needed supplies.
When the vaccine becomes available for all in the district who have signed up, we can complete those vaccinations in approximately three days based on our planning and the fact that schools are ideal locations for such large-scale activities. With the recent news of the one-shot vaccination from Johnson & Johnson on the horizon, there is hope that those who work and teach in our schools will have access to it. A single-shot vaccination would be ideal for vaccinating educators but honestly, we will take what is first made available to us.
As we wait for the vaccine and the ability to institute our collaborative plan, the district has teamed with our teachers association to offer COVID-19 testing to all HTSD employees and their families, and we will expand this to our whole school community in the coming weeks. HTSD believes that getting the vaccine and making testing easily available on site in the district are both essential to a transition back to a more traditional school operation.
New Jersey’s schools anchor our communities, and schools should be included in the vaccination process in order to do what parents within our own communities want us to do, what many of our state legislators want us to do, what all of us in education want to do: to safely return our students, faculty and staff to our schools for in-person instruction.
Hopefully, those who are planning at the state level will consider this option. Those of us in education are ready to roll up our sleeves to not only get the vaccine but provide the needed assistance and support so our communities can receive it too. All we need is to be asked for our schools to be part of the process.
We are willing and waiting to help.