‘Our kids are struggling’: Tennessee lawmaker urges governor to move teachers up on the vaccination list

Heather Crowley reads a book to her class at Forest Hill Elementary School in Germantown, Tennessee. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

The legislature’s top education leader has asked Gov. Bill Lee to move teachers toward the front of the line to receive a coronavirus vaccine in hopes of getting and keeping students in classrooms during the pandemic.

House Education Committee Chairman Mark White said Tuesday that he’d like to bump up teachers on Tennessee’s priority list from the second to the first phase of inoculations set to begin later this week. That change would lump teachers in with first responders like law enforcement officers and firefighters, while inpatient health care workers and residents and employees of long-term care facilities would still be vaccinated first.

White’s request comes as cases of COVID-19 are surging across Tennessee, forcing more schools to shift to remote learning while scrambling to staff their classrooms. With no relief in sight after the new year, weary families are struggling with virtual classes and worrying that their students are falling further behind.

“We need to protect our teachers against the virus and get our schools going again,” said White, a Republican from Memphis. “When it comes to the health and welfare of our children, I think teachers are as important as being a first responder.

“Let’s get this done,” he added.

A spokesman for the governor said the state’s immunization advisers are scheduled to meet this week to review Tennessee’s vaccine distribution plan, which was developed by the state health department based on recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Included in that discussion is where educators fall in the prioritization list,” said Gillum Ferguson, the governor’s press secretary. “We’ll strongly take the [committee’s] recommendations into account should any updates to our state plan be made.”

The discussion puts Tennessee in line with other states reviewing their distribution lists to potentially immunize teachers more quickly and get students back in classrooms sooner. Arizona’s governor recently said teachers would be among the first inoculated in his state, while Utah’s governor has been reviewing how to include educators in the first wave of vaccinations this month. Meanwhile, teachers in California are pushing to move up on their state’s priority list.

Currently, Tennessee educators likely won’t be vaccinated before spring based on the state’s most recent distribution plan and projected availability of the vaccine.

The state’s first round of 56,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two shots administered 21 days apart, is set to be distributed to hospitals on Thursday and will cover only a small percentage of healthcare workers. 

As shipments gradually increase in the first quarter of 2021, doses are to go to about 1.75 million people before the second phase begins for an estimated 2.55 million people. In addition to K-12 teachers and school and child care personnel, the second phase includes healthy people over age 65, prison and jail residents and staff, and critical infrastructure workers in sectors like public transportation, the postal service, and utilities.

Rep. Mark White (TN.gov)

“I just don’t want educators to be at the bottom of the list for March and April because we’re trying to address learning loss that’s happening now,” White said. 

“We’ll likely pass legislation soon to create summer school programs to address learning loss during the pandemic, and we don’t need to be doing those virtually. We’ve already had too much virtual, and our kids are struggling. They need teachers in front of them sooner than later,” he said.

A new survey of mostly educators by the Professional Educators of Tennessee showed that just over half of 1,400 respondents thought that school employees should be elevated in priority. And only a third said they would volunteer to take the vaccine, while 19% were undecided. That leaves 48% who said they would not be vaccinated.

“This is a difficult time for our educators and opinions still may change,” said JC Bowman, the group’s executive director. “However, most respondents think teachers are essential and want the vaccine to be offered but not required. They don’t think there has been enough testing on the vaccine to assure that it is safe. Basically, no one thinks they should be forced to take it.”

The state’s largest teachers organization, the Tennessee Education Association, does not have a position about educators taking the new vaccines or where they should fall on the priority list. The group is currently polling its members about those matters, said spokeswoman Amanda Chaney.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include survey results from the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

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