Tennessee recruits districts and school nurses to vaccinate teachers and staff

A doctor administers a vaccine to a patient. Both are wearing blue face masks.
School nurses in Tennessee could be trained to vaccinate teachers and other school staff if their districts sign on to receive and deliver doses that offer protection against the coronavirus. Only 60% of the state’s public schools had a full-time nurse in 2018-19, according to a 2020 state report. (Bogdankosanovic / Getty Images)

Teachers, bus drivers, and other school staff could get their COVID-19 shots on campus and from school nurses under a plan being promoted by Tennessee’s education chief.

Commissioner Penny Schwinn said Thursday the Tennessee Department of Health is recruiting schools as vaccination sites and school nurses to give the shots “wherever feasible.” 

In her weekly email update to school superintendents, Schwinn encouraged districts to register to become vaccination providers if they have refrigeration to receive doses and nurses to give the inoculations.

The effort comes as Tennessee prepares to open up statewide vaccinations in February or March to tens of thousands of teachers and staff at its K-12 schools and child care centers. 

Scaling up those vaccinations as more doses become available will be key to getting and keeping classrooms open in a state where remote education has become a contentious issue as the pandemic grinds on. Republican Gov. Bill Lee has criticized districts that remain virtual while, in a legislative proposal aimed at school systems in Memphis and Nashville, GOP lawmakers want to take away their state funding.

Tennessee joins other states where school and health officials are collaborating to expedite teacher vaccinations. Last week, leaders in Chicago announced plans to train school nurses to administer shots to about 40,000 school employees, while Detroit officials are trying to establish a handful of their schools as vaccination sites.

A health department spokeswoman did not immediately respond Thursday when asked how many districts have signed up for Tennessee’s school-based program. However, “there’s been a lot of interest,” said Victoria Robinson, communications director for the state education department.

Schwinn said districts also can work with their local health departments to arrange vaccination sites for employees.

A third of Tennessee’s 95 counties — mostly in rural areas — already have opened up the shots to educators through local health departments and providers. 

In Henry County Schools, about half of that West Tennessee district’s 500 teachers and staff were vaccinated this month, said Superintendent Leah Watkins.

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“Staff with Henry County Medical Center have been coming to our schools to give shots to those who elected to receive the vaccine. It’s been remarkable,” Watkins said.

Large school systems have bigger logistical challenges, though.

Shelby County Schools has about 14,000 employees and 200 schools across Memphis. District leaders are working with local and state health officials to train school nurses to give the shots at several district locations.

“Our goal is to ensure vaccination prioritization for district educators and employees,” said spokeswoman Jerica Phillips. “We are working to learn more about whether direct shipments will indeed expedite vaccinations before we assume any liability.”

The state’s second largest district is on board with the plan.

“We are eager to receive a direct allotment of vaccines as soon as they are available,” said Sean Braistead, spokesman for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

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