Educators ask Florida governor to add school employees to vaccine priority groups

Federal panel meets this weekend to discuss who should be prioritized next

Orange County Public Schools superintendent and Florida’s largest teachers union are asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to allocate coronavirus vaccines for school employees.

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Orange County Public Schools superintendent and Florida’s largest teachers union are asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to allocate coronavirus vaccines for school employees.

OCPS Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins sent a letter to DeSantis Thursday asking him to include K-12 essential school district employees who are in direct contact with students on his list of priority groups to receive the vaccine.

[RELATED: Orange County schools see increase in COVID-19 cases ahead of winter break | Winter travel raises more fears of viral spread]

She said she doesn’t want district employees to be forgotten.

“It’s just under the radar for some reason and we think it’s urgent. Time is of the essence,” she said.

Frontline health care workers and long-term care facility residents and staff are the first groups who began receiving the Pfizer vaccine shots earlier this week. DeSantis has said he wants LTC facilities to be fully vaccinated within four weeks.

Jenkins asked the governor to consider educators and other school employees as part of his list of priority groups to get inoculated.

“Access to the vaccines for this group would permit school districts to continue providing quality instruction for students as well as critical support services to our most vulnerable families,” Jenkins wrote.

[RELATED: ‘We are deeply concerned:’ Orange County schools see increase in COVID-19 cases ahead of winter break]

Schools reopened in August after closing in the spring due to the pandemic. More students are expected to return to face-to-face learning in January for the state of the new semester.

Jenkins said Thursday there have been more than 2,000 coronavirus cases among students, faculty and staff since in-person classes resumed in August, a “remarkable” number when considering that there are more than 200,000 students within the district.

Jenkins said additional staff will be needed as more students return to campuses, adding a vaccine might encourage some employees on leave due to the COVID-19 threat to return.

“As we grow, as the doors open wider, we believe it will encourage those employees, teachers, and others who have been working at home [the vaccine] will make them feel safer about returning to work to help take care of our children,” Jenkins said.

The superintendent said the district would work with unions to ensure the most vulnerable employees would be prioritized.

Wendy Dormal with the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association said DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran should consider the health and safety of people in schools, especially after the holiday break.

“We expect the cases to explode when we return to school,” she said. “We saw that happen after Thanksgiving.”

Earlier in the week, Florida’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association (FEA), also sent a letter to the governor asking him to prioritize pre-K through 12th grade school as well as higher education employees in the state education plan.

Both letters come after the recent COVID-19 deaths of Central Florida educators in Brevard and Flagler Counties.

“It is paramount the state stay ahead of any potential increase of COVID-19 in our schools and on our college and university campuses,” the letter read.

A federal panel of vaccination experts --- the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices-- will hold an emergency meeting this weekend to discuss who should be next to receive the vaccine, reports The Associated Press.

No matter what the group decided, it will vary from state to state. A California school district union also asked the panel to consider teachers and school employees.

In Nevada, for example, teachers and child care staff will be ahead of public transport workers, according to the state’s current vaccination plan.

A vaccine, “would give a lot more security and peace of mind to a lot of teachers that have many concerns, or they have health issues or family members with health issues,” Dormal said.

The panelists are leaning toward putting “essential workers” first because bus drivers, grocery store clerks and similar employees can’t work from home. They are the people getting infected most often, and where concerns about racial inequities in risk are most apparent.

News 6 reached out to other area school districts in regards to the request.

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents, led by President Michael Greco, has sent a joint letter to DeSantis asking him to consider educators and school employees under the state’s next priority group.

“FADSS requests your consideration for all school district employees to be classified as essential workers with regard to COVID-19 vaccine distribution,” the letter reads, in part. “Prioritization for personnel who have direct student contact will allow continuity of operation with schools remaining open to serve the students, families, and communities of Florida.”

Sumter County Superintendent Richard Shirley said he also believes school staff should be among the priority vaccination groups.

“I whole heartily agree with the idea since those in education provide a required and essential service for our students, our parents and our economy and fall into all different kinds of health risks to carry out their mission,” Shirley said in an email.

He continued, “Following the lead of Dr. Jenkins’, FADSS President Greco and others, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents will be providing a joint letter on behalf of all superintendents to demonstrate our united belief that required workers, like educators, bus drivers, para’s and others with student contact requirements should be a high priority as the vaccine becomes more readily available.”

Shirley said he won’t send an independent letter to DeSantis but supports the FADSS letter headed to the governor’s office.

A request for comment to the governor’s office had also not been returned at the time of this report.

The Associated Pres contributed to this report.