Teachers’ turn: Vaccine rollout focuses on Routt County teachers this week
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — This week, COVID-19 vaccinations were offered to teachers and school staffs across Routt County.
On Monday, about two-thirds of the Hayden School District employees received the vaccine, and on Thursday and Friday, vaccines were administered to about 60% of South Routt School District employees.
And then on Friday, about 70% of the teachers and staff from the Steamboat Springs School District received vaccines at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center — accounting for the hospital’s largest one-day COVID-19 vaccine clinic thus far.
Some community members joined them from the 65-and-older age group for a one-day total of 325 people.
Dozens more teachers from Steamboat Mountain School, Emerald Mountain School and Steamboat Montessori School also received vaccines this week.
The acceptance rates across Routt County schools don’t necessarily reflect how many staff members this week outright declined a vaccine. Some already received the vaccine where they fit into another category of eligibility, some have health conditions that prevent them from getting the vaccines and others logistically were not able to commit to this week’s schedule or the follow-up second dose.
As an entirely voluntary offering, the choice is a personal one.
But the availability of the vaccines for school staff represents a significant step toward a return to normalcy — not only for schools and their students and families but also for the functioning of the economy and society as a whole.
In Routt County, getting shots in the arms of school staff was a collaborative effort between Routt County Public Health, the local hospital, South Routt Medical Center and Lyon’s Drug Store, which mobilized to bring vaccines to the North Routt Charter School in Clark.
“I really appreciate local public health providing our employees a higher level of safety and comfort as they have committed to being here every day for our students,” South Routt Superintendent Rim Watson said. “For the first time in my career, I have sat across from some employees who are genuinely scared. The commitment they are fulfilling could put them in true jeopardy or cause contagion to be brought home to their families. It is huge to have this added level of protection provided.”
Last week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated.”
However, vaccinations have been a sticking point for education advocates and teachers unions.
All districts in Routt County have dealt with quarantines and full closures over the course of this school year due to students and staff testing positive for COVID-19.
Next week, the youngest Steamboat students in kindergarten through second grade will begin attending class in person every day. In the weeks following, the plan is to extend everyday in-person learning to third- through fifth-graders.
“As a school district, we are appreciative and thankful for the partnership with UCHealth, Routt County Public Health and Lyon’s in their efforts to coordinate today’s vaccination opportunity for many of our teachers and staff,” Steamboat Springs Superintendent Brad Meeks said on Friday. “Our staff have been committed to serving our students and community during the pandemic, and being vaccinated this week provides a level of safety and relief, not only to the students they serve, but also their own families.”
Just after 7 a.m. Friday, the following four Steamboat teachers were the very first among their colleagues to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the hospital.
Allison Sabat, physical education teacher, Strawberry Park Elementary School
Teaching P.E. virtually has taken a lot of creativity. The best days were when they could be outside, Allison Sabat said, offering one of the few opportunities the kids got to take off their masks.
On the virtual learning days, Sabat provided videos of movement and skills the kids could practice at home. She also focused lessons on some of the more academic elements of P.E., like checking your heart rate, nutrition and hydration.
Sabat said she is looking forward to having all the kids back in school every day.
“It’s so exciting,” she said. “I think, especially at those lower grade levels, it is so important — especially for reading and fundamental skills. They need to be all together again in that social atmosphere. Hopefully, it all works out.”
For Sabat, the most stressful part of the last year has been the sudden changes when a quarantine order hits.
“That fear of having to go virtual at the drop of a hat,” she said.
There are never enough substitutes, and it requires teachers to quickly change their curriculum plans. Sabat has been on quarantine once, but the entire school has shut down twice.
“Everything has come together, and everyone works together, so that has been a positive thing,” Sabat said.
After getting the vaccine Friday, Sabat said she felt like a valued member of the community.
“People really do care about us and believe we were next in line,” she said. “The atmosphere was very positive, and I can’t wait to face the rest of the year with optimism and enthusiastic energy.”
Elissa Chapman, second-grade teacher, Soda Creek Elementary School
On Thursday before getting the COVID-19 vaccine, Elissa Chapman described how she felt with two words: excited and grateful.
Over the past year, “I’ve heard so much support for what I do,” Chapman said. “People go out of their way to thank me. That’s really filled me up. There are a lot of people who deserve a vaccine now and aren’t getting one. The fact they made us this second group is pretty great.”
One of Chapman’s biggest challenges has been not seeing her kids every day.
“All of us became teachers to do right by the kids,” she said. “I worry some of the things we are doing now is not best for the kids.”
Chapman can’t wait to have all her kids back every day.
“I think it’s what is best for the kids, so I’m completely game to give it a try,” she added.
At the same time, Chapman notes the silver lining of the closeness in having only 10 kids in a classroom at time.
Chapman has escaped being on quarantine herself but has had each of her own three kids on quarantine, as well as individual kids in her class.
On the whole, Chapman said she is inspired by how her kids and families are managing.
“They’ve been incredible,” she said. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do, and they’ve done it without hesitation.”
As another silver lining, she sees the kids learning lessons they would have never in a normal world.
“They have learned grit and resilience and flexibility,” she said.
Amy Piva, eighth-grade English and history teacher, Steamboat Springs Middle School
“I feel like this is a step forward,” Amy Piva said of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. “I’ve never been so excited to get a shot in my life.”
Piva said she’s been anxiously awaiting the opportunity ever since the vaccines were approved.
“It’s been really difficult because this virus made us feel like there’s not a lot we can do,” Piva said. “We’ve been in limbo for such a long time. I feel like I’m finally able to do something that’s proactive.”
For Piva, it’s the fear of the unknown that has been the biggest challenge. She also sees the stress of the quarantines and general uncertainty weighing on her students.
On the whole, the kids “have really done a fabulous job,” she said. “It’s not easy having school every other day. It shows what great kids we have, and how they are able to adapt.”
Piva said the vaccine is important for teachers, because they have been exposed. In addition, Piva stressed the importance of setting an example for her kids and their families.
“It’s great for them to see that — the teachers being excited to get vaccinated — that it’s OK, that it’s a good thing. That it’s safe and effective.”
Charlie Leech, science teacher at Steamboat Springs High School
Charlie Leech described getting the COVID-19 vaccine as electrifying.
“Everyone was so excited,” Leech said. “There’s a feeling we are one step closer to herd immunity.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has become intertwined in Leech’s biology and environmental science class curriculum. Right now, his students are learning about the variants, because this is the time of year they would normally be learning about genetics and how DNA and RNA work.
But from the beginning, Leech made it clear that if the real life connections were overwhelming for his students, he would make changes.
Leech said he has spent about one-third of his teaching time on what he calls “headspace,” or the mental health aspects of what his students and the community are going through. He keeps a close eye out for students who are struggling.
In terms of getting the vaccine himself, Leech said he had no hesitancy. He has taken a careful look at the data and has faith in the scientific process.
“It seems like any potential risks are outweighed by the benefits and the benefit of herd immunity to society as a whole,” Leech said.
Right now, it’s the variants and quickly mutating virus that causes Leech concern.
“Until there are enough people who have the antibodies, there’s going to be a significant risk to the public,” Leech said. “People need to get antibodies as soon as possible. The vaccination program is integral to making that happen.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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