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Education

Kansas and Missouri Teachers, Already Back In Class, Feel Demoralized By Slow Vaccine Rollout

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Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Seniors and high-risk individuals are getting vaccinated, but shots are still hard to come by. As a result, Missouri educators may not be eligible to get vaccinated until April.

The CDC is expected to release new guidelines for reopening schools on Friday, but vaccines for teachers won’t be a requirement.

Unable to access COVID-19 vaccines, teachers are feeling frustrated and expendable in the ongoing debate about reopening schools.

Kathy Kappes-Sum is a middle school math teacher in De Soto, Kansas, which was the first school district in Johnson County to resume full-time in-person learning for older students. She said social distancing is now impossible in the small, 15-by-16-foot room she teaches in.

“We had social distancing with hybrid. In most of our classes, we could pull that off,” Kappes-Sum said. “I haven’t seen anything saying the CDC or the county have changed the guidelines for how we’re supposed to stay safe. It’s masks and social distancing.

“Social distancing went out the window as soon as we got everyone back.”

Unlike Missouri, Kansas has started vaccinating teachers. Gov. Laura Kelly said Wednesday that 60% of districts have already begun vaccinations. But so far, the only educators Kappes-Sum knows who have gotten the vaccine work with students with special needs.

Kappes-Sum, who is in her 50s, expects to be vaccinated in the next few weeks. She’s just not sure why De Soto couldn’t have waited until teachers were vaccinated to bring everyone back.

“I signed up for reasonable decisions,” Kappes-Sum said. “They're not making reasonable decisions.”

Worse in Missouri

Still, the situation in Kansas is way better than it is in Missouri, where teachers aren’t even eligible to be vaccinated. Last week, at the education department’s monthly COVID-19 briefing, the state’s director of health and senior services said it could be April before Missouri begins vaccinating teachers and other essential workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends school staff be included in phase 1B of states’ vaccination plans, alongside seniors and high-risk individuals. But Missouri has put frontline workers in a lower tier, which means teachers — most of whom have been face-to-face for months — will have to wait a little longer for vaccines.

“Just because teachers in other states are eligible to receive the vaccine right now does not mean there is actually enough vaccine supply that they are actually getting the vaccine right now,” Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Mallory McGowin told the state board this week.

But many Missouri districts made return-to-school plans that hinged on teachers being vaccinated this month. Some teachers were given vaccine appointments at places like Truman Medical Centers, only to be turned away.

“I really worry about the future of our profession,” said Tricia DeGraff, the executive director of Academy for Integrated Arts, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. “We already have a teacher shortage, and it just sends a message that we don’t value educators.”

‘Demoralized’

For her part, DeGraff agrees with infectious disease experts who say that schools can operate safely even if teachers aren’t vaccinated.

“We follow all the risk mitigation protocols. Social distancing, masking. We also give all staff members a weekly COVID test,” DeGraff said.

AFIA has slowly been bringing students back for in-person learning, and there haven’t been any cases associated with the school. By March, DeGraff expects 70% of AFIA students to be learning at school. The remaining 30% will continue to log in from home because their families opted for remote learning, and a few teachers with underlying health conditions won’t return until they’re fully vaccinated.

On Friday, the CDC is expected to release new guidance for reopening schools, but vaccines for teachers are not expected to be a requirement. Instead, vaccines will be treated like another layer of protection.

That’s also what McGowan, the education department spokeswoman, said this week.

“We’re stacking layers of protection on top of one another like a Swiss cheese. So there’s holes in every layer of protection, but the more layers you add, the more holes you cover up,” McGowin said.

But that doesn’t mean teachers feel safe back in their classrooms. Kappes-Sum, the Kansas teacher, said the word she keeps coming back to is “demoralized.”

“I know a lot of teachers who are being very, very cautious in their lives outside of school, but then they come into the building and are in close contact with students,” she said. “We feel like the district is playing fast and loose with our lives.”

Kappes-Sum plans to leave the De Soto school district at the end of the school year.

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