Last week, Governor Gretchen Whitmer said that she wants all schools to offer at least some in-person learning by March 1. At the same time, she opened up eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations to K-12 teachers, among other “frontline essential workers.”
Michigan Radio spoke with a number of teachers, all of whom said that they—and most of their colleagues—are eager to return to the classroom. But most want to get vaccinated first, and worry about whether educators will be able to get the necessary two doses before that happens.
Many teachers said the vaccine rollout has been confusing, with too little or bewildering information on about how to go about getting vaccinated. Currently, vaccine demand in Michigan far outpaces supply, overwhelming most county health departments. And while health systems are also providing vaccinations, they face the same supply issues, and many are focused on vaccinating another group that recently became eligible: those 65 and older.
Elizabeth Willoughby is a teacher for the Lakeview Public Schools in St. Clair Shores, in Macomb County. She’s already teaching in-person classes, and said that’s forced her to isolate from friends and family. So she’s eager to get vaccinated.
But she worries there’s not enough vaccines to go around. Like some other teachers, Willoughby said the state set up a kind of cutthroat competition for vaccines.
“They threw the teachers in with this huge demographic of 65-plus, so we are literally fighting for vaccines with a huge demographic,” Willoughby said.
Willoughby lives in Detroit, so she’s eligible to get vaccinated at the TCF Center. She did manage to get an appointment there, after making more than 140 calls to the booking call center. But TCF is only available to Detroit residents for now, and Willoughby said many of her fellow teachers haven’t had any luck trying to schedule an appointment through Macomb County's health department.
“No one I know can get through,” she said. “It seems like Macomb County isn’t taking any appointments.”
Willoughby and other teachers said Whitmer sparked confusion by telling teachers to “ask their employer” about how to get vaccinated. In fact, school districts appeared to be unaware that the announcement was coming, and many have told their employees that they can provide no help beyond pointing them to local public health agencies.
Caryn Leonard, a teacher at Troy Public Schools, said she and her teacher colleagues teamed up to get the word out to each other about how to get vaccinated. Leonard managed to score her first shot this week, which she’s extremely grateful for—she has type 1 diabetes and a lung condition that would put her at extremely high-risk if she contracted COVID-19.
“I am feeling very relieved for myself, but I am also concerned that so many of my colleagues and coworkers have not been able to yet schedule theirs because the vaccines were quickly spoken for and they were not able to schedule appointments,” Leonard said.
Leonard said her experience of actually getting the vaccine through Oakland County was “five-star,” but like many other teachers, she’s frustrated by the larger process.
“I can tell you that many teachers are very fired up and upset about how this was rolled out,” Leonard said. “Because you know, we’re all tired. We’re all worn down, we’re all tired, we’re all doing the best we can, but it’s a lot.”
Leonard said if Whitmer truly wants all teachers back in classrooms by March 1, the state should have communicated better with local health departments, and withheld the necessary number of doses for teacher vaccinations.
Vicki Green, a high school teacher with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, agrees.
“I think it [March 1 return date] was a suggestion, of course, more than a mandate,” Green said. “But to go back in-person you really, really want that to happen, then we need to figure out how to give teachers priority to get the vaccine before we make that happen.”
Green has been trying, as of Thursday morning unsuccessfully, to book a vaccine at the TCF Center. A Detroit Public Schools Community District spokesperson said this week via email that the district “is working out the details with the city health department to directly provide vaccines to our employees and contracted workers, such as custodians, bus drivers, and maintenance staff. We hope to begin this process next week.” But Green said that plan had not been communicated to teachers.