Kentucky school employees receive COVID-19 vaccine
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna R. Kelly
When the needle stuck Christian County Superintendent Chris Bentzel’s arm, he didn’t feel pain – he felt relief.
And he wasn’t the only one.
The excitement at the site where hundreds of Christian County teachers and staff members received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine was palpable.
“I’ll be perfectly honest, there was a feeling of relief,” Bentzel said. “There were some staff members that were in tears.”
The 800 Christian County employees who received their shots the second week of January were some of the first Kentucky school employees to be vaccinated. More than 83,000 Kentucky K-12 school employees were scheduled to receive their first dose by the second week in February.
The vaccine comes nearly 11 months after the pandemic first closed Kentucky schools to in-person instruction. The virus’ repeated resurgence across the state has disrupted the school year, forcing many districts to all-virtual or hybrid instruction. As of the first week of February, at least 15 school districts remained closed to in-person instruction while at least 121 were using some form of a hybrid schedule with groups of students attending on alternating days.
Over the course of the pandemic, at least one student, two teachers and two staff members have died of the virus.
“This is going to help us safely get our kids back in school faster than any other state,” Gov. Andy Beshear said during a mass vaccination event for Jefferson County Schools employees at Broadbent Arena.‘We miss being there’
Christian County school board member Tom Bell displays his vaccination card after receiving the COVID vaccine. (Photo provided by Christian County Schools)
More than 1,200 employees received the vaccine at the Jan. 22 drive-thru clinic. Jefferson County Superintendent Marty Pollio called the event the most important day of his 25-year career in education.“Why this is so important to me, is now we get to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Pollio, whose 100,000-student district had not returned to in-person classes this school year as of early February.
After K-12 employees in the state have been offered the first and second doses of the vaccine, Beshear said he plans to “significantly ease” the guidance on holding in-person classes which now calls for using a “more aggressive hybrid model” while counties remain in the red category for high incidence of the virus.
Balancing the academic and social-emotional needs and the health and safety needs of students and staff has made for difficult decisions by education leaders across the state, Pollio said.
“It seems every single board meeting, every week, we are making difficult decisions that really there are no right answers to,” he said. “And that is a very challenging time to be a leader.”
But Pollio said seeing so many employees getting the vaccine gave him hope and made him confident that students would return to the classroom this school year. A total of 13,000 Jefferson County Schools employees – 87 percent – requested the vaccine, he said.
Atkinson Elementary special education teacher Tonya Moore, who spoke at the Jan. 22 clinic, said she is eager to return to her classroom.
“We can’t wait to get back into the school,” she said. “The hope that we give to our students, the hope that they give to us, it’s important. We miss them. We miss being there.”
Moore, who changed careers to become a teacher after seeing special education teachers work with her daughter, said she knows her students need her, and she needs to see them.
“I would like to thank the health department for giving us this shot of hope,” she said. “We are ready to get back to it.”‘Model the way’
Logan County Superintendent Paul Mullins and Russellville Independent Superintendent Larry Begley high five after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo provided by Logan County Schools)
Each Kentucky school district was directed to work with a “vaccinator” – typically the local health department, hospital or pharmacy – to schedule staff vaccines. Public health officials urged superintendents to get the vaccine and to publicize their vaccinations in hopes of encouraging staff and community members to get the shot.“It’s leadership 101, you can’t ask people to do something that you're not willing to do yourself,” Bentzel said. “I wanted to do it for a lot of reasons, but one of them was to model the way.”
In addition to taking the shot, Bentzel and the district’s assistant superintendents staffed the event, checking employees in and showing support, he said.
The first day, 219 staff received the shot and a total of 802 – 65 percent of district staff – had signed up for appointments with the Christian County Health Department, he said.
“I think we all should look at this as a gift, a blessing that we were honored to be put on the 1B rollout plan,” he said. “It’s not something you should take lightly. And so it's kind of like you're put on a pedestal.”
At least four Christian County board members also received the shot on the first day and the district publicized their vaccines on social media.
“Their why was the same as my why, to show solidarity, to show the team and to lead the way,” he said. “And I think they did a good job with that.”
Logan County Superintendent Paul Mullins and Russellville Independent Superintendent Larry Begley also publicized receiving their vaccines. The pair were featured in a video highlighting how the districts worked together with Logan Memorial Hospital to get 440 staff members in the two districts vaccinated in one day.
“It’s always great when communities can come together, work across school district lines and partner with the local hospital to better serve our staff so that we can better serve our students,” Mullins said in the video.
Larry Begley, Russellville Ind. Schools superintendent, said the vaccine would give his district the best opportunity to educate students safely. In the video, Russellville Ind.’s Robin Cornelius, principal at Stevenson Elementary, said she was delighted for the chance to get the vaccine.
“I’m getting this vaccine, not just for me, but for my son, my husband, for my students, for my staff,” she said. ‘One step closer’
Though the vaccine offers hope to administrators, teachers, parents and students that a permanent return to in-person learning is possible, public health officials warn that it doesn’t mean abandoning safety protocols.
Anyone who has received the vaccine still needs to wear a mask, social distance and wash their hands, said Kentucky Deputy Public Health Commissioner Connie White. The practices in the state’s Healthy at School guidance, such as spacing students 6 feet apart and universal mask wearing, will remain in place for the remainder of the school year, she said.
But the vaccine is one step closer to returning to normal, Bentzel said.
“I think we see the light in the tunnel, but it's still a little foggy,” he said. “That’s what I tell people, there’s still some dust around. We still have to be vigilant. We still have to mask up. We still have to do things the right way and use common sense.”
Christian County was using a hybrid schedule for middle and high school students as of early February. And Bentzel hoped that the vaccine would allow the district to get all students back to the classroom five days a week as soon as possible in order to make the most of the last months of the school year.
That’s when the work of recovering from the pandemic will really start, he said.
“I think we’re one step closer, but I think we’ve got probably two or three years yet before full recovery, when it comes down to it,” he said. “I think the vaccination gave us a little momentum. But I also think there’s a lot of work to get done.”