MANCHESTER, NH – Citizen petitions have gathered thousands of signatures calling for the state to bump teachers up on the priority list of groups set to receive the COVID-19 vaccinations, and teachers unions have called for the same. But Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday that such a move is unnecessary for schools to run in-person learning.
“We all kind of feel it’s an urgent issue,” said Sean Parr, a Manchester parent and member of the Smyth Road School Parent Teacher Organization (PTO).
Parr initiated a citizen petition on Change.org calling for teachers, who are now slated to receive the vaccine in Phase 2 of the rollout, currently scheduled to happen between March and May, to be moved to Phase 1b, which starts on Friday. So far, Parr’s petition has gathered more than 1,100 signatures.
Another petition calling for the same thing started by educator Ellen Grudzien has collected over 9,300 signatures.
Phase 1b prioritizes access for an estimated 325,000 people who are 65 or older, certain medically-vulnerable individuals and their family caregivers, residents and staff of residential facilities for developmental disabilities, corrections officers and any first responders and medical staff who still have not been vaccinated.
New Hampshire National Education Association (NEA) President Megan Tuttle has been speaking out about the issue this week, saying teachers need to be given a higher priority in the inoculation process because it’s the only way to get schools to reopen safely in the state.
Tuttle told Manchester Ink Link that teachers should have been put in the first phase to begin with, which she said is what most states in the country are doing.
Parr echoed the sentiment, saying the vaccine is “very highly effective” and that it should make it easier to speed up the opening of schools that are only doing remote learning.
During a press conference Thursday afternoon, Sununu took issue with that narrative, saying it’s false to assert a connection between teacher vaccinations and schools being able to safely open for in-person learning.
He also criticized teacher’s unions for politicizing the issue, since most schools already do provide in-person learning safely and can serve as a model to any schools that are not doing that.
“It’s a disservice to the kids to say that vaccine availability prevents us from opening schools safely. Schools can frankly start ramping up today. The funding is there, the will of the students is there, the will of the parents is there,” Sununu said.
He said first responders and people who are more vulnerable to the disease should take priority in order to lessen the strain on the state’s healthcare apparatus and save lives.
“That’s the key to getting fatalities down, that’s the key to making sure our healthcare system doesn’t get overrun,” Sununu said. “We still may have very high numbers of COVID for a long time, but if the hospitalization and mortality rate is down, that’s the goal, and that’s how we start opening things up. Schools shouldn’t necessarily wait for that to happen.”
Sununu said the average age for teachers in the state is 46, and he said any teacher who is 65 and older can get a vaccine. He said there have been no major outbreaks at any schools to-date, and schools with large case clusters can close for a couple weeks if necessary and then resume its in-person learning, as some have done.
But Tuttle said the issue is not about transmission in schools. Most COVID clusters are caused by exposures outside of school, and school closures are often caused by teachers and staff getting the virus and quarantining, leaving facilities without enough staff to stay open, she said.
“What he’s doing is distracting from the issue at hand, which is that the teachers should have been in the first phase to begin with,” Tuttle said.
Tuttle said the union represents about 17,000 educators, mostly in grades K-12, and the state has an estimated total of about 26,000 to 30,000 educators, including higher ed.
She said she has heard the state make the argument that one of the reasons teachers can’t be prioritized higher is a limited supply of the vaccine.
Former Assistant Safety Commissioner Perry Plummer, who is overseeing the vaccine distribution process, said during the press conference that they have sufficient infrastructure to administer vaccines and ramp up that capacity if supply were to increase.
“Putting needles in arms is not going to be our difficulty. It’s just that amount of vaccine coming in. Whenever they come in, we can match that operation to that,” Plummer said. “If they called us today and said, ‘We have 20,000 more doses coming next week,’ we could get those in arms right away.”
Plummer said the state has set up 13 stations for administering vaccines across the state, with plans to expand those existing sites, add new sites or establish “super sites” as needed if they get a large volume of vaccines shipped into the state.