With Georgia teachers still not vaccinated, when can our public schools fully re-open? On Georgia Today, GPB health care reporter Ellen Eldridge discusses the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and its impact on teachers.

RELATED: 'Georgians Hope To Get COVID-19 Vaccine Across State Lines'


Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Feb. 19th, 2021. As of this week, just over 1 million Georgians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. That represents about 12% of the state's adult population. But so far, teachers are not among them. Gov. Brian Kemp told 11 Alive News that the state simply doesn't have enough vaccine to open up the priority list to the state's 100,000-plus teachers.

Brian Kemp: Based on the data that we have, based on the public health guidance that I'm getting from Dr. Toomey and other individuals, that we just do not have the supply to expand the criteria right now.

Steve Fennessy: Last week, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for reopening schools. Vaccinating teachers, the agency said, was not a prerequisite. Nevertheless, said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, schools still must adopt strict mitigation efforts, like mandatory masking.

Rochelle Walensky: With the release of this operational strategy, CDC is not mandating that schools reopen. These recommendations simply provide schools a long-needed road map for how to do so safely under different levels of disease in the community.

Steve Fennessy: So, where does this road map leave Georgia public schools, which, altogether, enroll more than 1.5 million students? I’m joined by GPB health care reporter Ellen Eldridge.

Ellen Eldridge: My children are 10 and 8.

Steve Fennessy: Are your kids in school?

Ellen Eldridge: They are attending classes online.

We're up here in Cherokee County where they did give parents the choice between doing the digital learning or doing face-to-face. And so we started them with digital learning because we didn't know much at all, back in August. And we have continued throughout the year. It's actually provided them with some consistency, even though they very much need to go back and see their peers.

Newscast: Next tonight, the coronavirus and cases falling while restrictions are being lifted, even as those highly contagious variants spread across the country.

Steve Fennessy: The cases of infections are going down. I think we're at our lowest numbers since maybe back in November. Numbers are still, though, historically very high. If you look at it over the past year, what effect is — is that having, if any, on — on the momentum of — of whether it be parents or teachers or superintendents or school boards, to get kids back into in-person learning?

Ellen Eldridge: It's obviously encouraging that the numbers are going down. That's — that's always going to be good news. But the reality is that the numbers are not down enough. And the CDC guidance says also certain red zones should be closed down and using remote learning until such time as cases are even lower. And I believe at this point, certainly in the recent past, no county in the entire United States was low enough transmission to get back in-person, according to those new CDC guidelines.

Steve Fennessy: We're all in the red. So by that definition, we should all be having our kids stay at home and learning virtually, right? By the CDC guidelines, right?

Ellen Eldridge: Yeah, sure. Obviously, it's laughable because, you know, it is — it's difficult. It's an incredibly complex thing that's going on right now across the nation. And it would almost be easier if there were somebody to say, “This is the rule, this is what everybody's going to do.” But local control is important. It's very important here in Georgia and there are good reasons for that. So what we have is — is 159 different counties in the state making — making their own rules.

Steve Fennessy: Let's step back for a second and talk about the early days of the pandemic, because last March, as we started to become aware of just how severe the pandemic could be, Gov. Brian Kemp sort of invoked his emergency powers and he closed all public schools.

Brian Kemp: I will sign an executive order today, closing K-12 public schools for the rest of the school year. I want to stress that online learning will continue. I want to thank all of the educators and superintendents that have stayed in touch with us through this process to make the best of a tough situation. We will continue to work with them on the — on the path forward.

Steve Fennessy: So everybody was basically sent home and — who were in public schools — and then over the course of the summer, everyone is sort of discussing, “Well, what happens in August?” So why didn't he extend that that closure into the school year that we're in now?

Ellen Eldridge: Over the summer, scientists, researchers, we learned more about the virus. But I think it was always pretty well-known that the best form of education for children is to be surrounded in person with their peers, with their teachers, and to attend classes face-to-face, not just for the mental health aspects, but also because many of the children throughout the state, some of them don't even have access — broadband access or, you know, computers. If you're a family with — with two or three children, every child has to have a laptop to connect to — to remote schooling. And so all of these things were known in the summer. Some of the problems involved not getting a plan together earlier. It was just a very, very difficult situation, very fluid. And even, you know, heading into August, many of the teachers were saying that they didn't know whether we were going to continue to be online or if schools were going to open or what was going to happen.

Newscast: For nearly 4,000 students in Jefferson, Ga., this wasn't your normal first day of school.

Student: I'm glad to be back, but it's definitely weird.

Newscast: The district says 95% of families chose to send students back into the schools for face-to-face learning, but only about 5% will stay home and take classes virtually.

Steve Fennessy: For the majority of the pandemic. So far, the federal government has sort of been hands-off with states and saying every state needs to decide what's best for them. And it's sort of trickled down to schools in terms of, you know, as we were talking about reopening in August, the governor is saying, well, you know, you — you all need to figure out what's best for what works for you.

Ellen Eldridge: Yeah, it's again, I mean, there was no consistent messaging from the top throughout most of last year. And the federal government left much of it to the states and to the governors. And then those governors, including Brian Kemp, left it to the local school boards, which I can understand the point when you're talking about, you know, maybe a district that does have more access and better broadband or something, you know, maybe that district would be better to have some — some virtual classes, whereas a more rural district would need to go in person and have more stringent safety measures taken. But without that consistent, clear messaging, really, each — each school district has been left on — on its own.

Steve Fennessy: So as we're talking about reopening schools, who's caught in the middle, but the teachers.

Newscast: After 14 years of teaching computer science at Roswell High School in Fulton County, Kenneth Lee put in his resignation.

Kenneth Lee: This is not the ideal solution that I was seeking, but I felt like I needed to take the high road and tell them my concerns.

Newscast: Lee says given his personal risk factors and the number of students in his classes, he doesn't feel safe.

Kenneth Lee: The ramifications for somebody like myself in my late 50s is a little bit different.

Ellen Eldridge: Teachers throughout the state have pretty well been upset on all sides of it. I mean, the teachers who had to go back face-to-face first and didn't have a choice. They were out protesting in those districts. And then we had parents protesting when teachers were not going to be given a choice and be forced to stay virtual. But a consistent theme that I've really seen throughout the year — well, the school year — is that teachers feel like they are — their health is just simply not a priority.

Some districts have flat-out warned teachers that they would be fired for speaking out publicly. Teachers in this state, they don't have any unions, they don't have any real power as in other states. Some teachers, it seems that they're generally not concerned. They're not worried about the virus. They don't necessarily believe that masks are going to make a difference. And then the teachers that do think that masks would make a difference are saying that that those concerns are simply going unheard.

Steve Fennessy: Can you talk a little bit about what some of the teachers you've spoken with have said specifically about their own experiences with — with having — either having to go back or not being given an option about whether they can go back?

Ellen Eldridge: Yeah, some of the teachers have told me — and again, a lot of this reporting was back in August when the first schools, I believe it was Paulding County and Cherokee County, were some of the first schools to open for face-to-face instruction way back in August. And the teachers were saying that they had to prepare to be both in-person, in classes as well as online. So they had double the workload. They said that even teachers who would be authorized to do the remote learning would still have to come into the buildings. And teachers were — were further told that they were not permitted to take their own safety measures. Like, some teachers wanted to do things such as purchasing Plexiglas, and they were told, no, they couldn't do that. With their own money. They weren't allowed to do that. What I've been hearing from the teachers is that there's no recourse. They're not allowed to protect themselves. They're not allowed to speak out, and they're incredibly frustrated.

Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, how one Georgia community paid the price for vaccinating teachers out of turn. This is Georgia Today.


Steve Fennessy: It's Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm speaking with Ellen Eldridge, health care reporter at Georgia Public Broadcasting. We're talking about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Georgia and its impact on public schools reopening here. Ellen, on Christmas Day, a kindergarten art teacher in Cobb County whose name was Patrick Key died six weeks after being hospitalized with COVID-19. A month later, at a Cobb school board meeting, a district employee made a request of board members and the district superintendent.

Public Commenter: As teachers and staff are being asked to do more than ever, we would appreciate that more be done to remember and honor Patrick tonight. His obituary said, “Patrick felt passionate about wearing masks during the pandemic. In lieu of flowers, please buy and wear a mask to protect others and yourself in honor of him.”

Steve Fennessy: Ellen, what happened after she made that request?

Ellen Eldridge: The school board members are not allowed to respond directly to public comment, but the actions speak louder than words. They simply did not choose to put on face masks as a sign of respect for this teacher who had passed.

Public Commenter: I'd like the record to reflect that some of you did not wear a mask: the final request of a teacher who died. Your actions in these two minutes have spoken louder than words. We see where your priorities are. Please know that many of us reject your false gratitude for staff, since we seem disposable to many of you.

Steve Fennessy: We've talked throughout the pandemic about, you know, the fact that we were opening bars, but not schools and the vaccine has been sort of the magic bullet we've been waiting for that would allow us to — to open the schools. But when it comes to where the teachers fall on the priority list, that's been a matter of some debate.

Ellen Eldridge: Yeah, I spoke with Dr. Alonzo Plough, the chief science officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Alonzo Plough: Governors and officials are making very different decisions about prioritization, right? Even though there is pretty consistent guidance from CDC that teachers should be prioritized.

Ellen Eldridge: He said that the way he interprets the CDC guidance is that teachers most certainly should be prioritized, as well as transit workers and people who are on the front lines and out and about in society.

Alonzo Plough: Getting kids back to school are going to get us back on the well-being curve that COVID has gotten us off of. So all the evidence says that teachers — if anyone is an essential worker, there are teachers. That's why transit workers need to — need to be vaccinated. That's what — you know, I think that the evidence and the guidance and the prioritization coming from CDC should be more uniformly guard — guiding state decisions. But again, the problem is not enough supply.

Steve Fennessy: I think it's important also to stress that if you or I have to stay home to help teach our kids who are learning virtually, we can't be out in our jobs. The domino effect that that has on the economy is really astronomical,

Ellen Eldridge: Certainly. And I mean, think about the single parent.

Steve Fennessy: I know! I know! I don't know how single parents do it. I really don't.

Ellen Eldridge: We've even got single parents who are teachers. So, you know, I spoke with one — one mom who — she is the parent to a child with special needs. And she's a public school teacher. And she told me she literally had to choose between teaching her own son and teaching other people's children in school. But she needed the money, of course. So, you know, you can't just quit your job and — and teach your kids at home. It's — there's — it's an entire domino system.

Newscast: We are at a turning point in a pandemic that has now killed more than 300,000 Americans. The first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine arrived today in Georgia.

Steve Fennessy: So initially, we had vaccine available to health care workers, we had a vaccine available made available to — to those who are 75 or older, and then Gov. Kemp decided to make them available to anyone 65 or older. And that's regardless of whether they had any kind of comorbidities, any preexisting health conditions. It was anybody — if you were 65 or older, you could get the vaccine.

Ellen Eldridge: That's correct, and he also included people who would be considered caretakers and right around the same time, Georgia also included first responders. These are the paramedics, the police officers, you know, and that, again, it all makes sense. Sure. I mean, everybody who's at risk should have access to the vaccine. But the fact of the matter is it's in limited supply. So why the governor and the health department decided to boost all of these people while insisting that there wasn't enough for teachers. All I know for sure is that many teachers in the state feel simply that that's the governor saying that teachers are not a priority.

Newscasts: Moving on to our coronavirus coverage this afternoon, teachers in Wisconsin will now have priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

…One issue we focus on in our commitment to help build a better Bay Area is your health. And that includes the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Marin County is now vaccinating teachers and school staff.

…Today more than 1,200 Phenix Union High School employees, teachers and staff are getting their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine

Steve Fennessy: Nationwide, something like half of the states in America have — have already started giving vaccine to teachers, right?

Ellen Eldridge: That's correct. I believe as of Feb. 11th, it was 28 states, I believe the District of Columbia — definitely more than half the nation. So, I mean, I can only imagine what it feels like to be an educator, to know that you're on the front lines dealing with students. Traditionally, when students go back to public school, that's — that's when the diseases: the strep throat, the pink eye and ear infections, all that stuff is par for the course in public schools.

Newscast: The medical center of Elberton is again appealing a state decision to suspend their COVID-19 vaccine shipments.

Steve Fennessy: Well, I want to also talk about what happened in Elbert County, which is a rural Georgia county. As we've as we've discussed, you know, the governor has let school districts decide how best to open up their schools or whether to not open their schools or whether to go virtual. But when it comes to the vaccine, they've insisted that the state government has that municipalities and those who are administering the vaccine abide strictly by their priority list. But in Elbert County, they tried something different. What — what happened there?

Ellen Eldridge: Yeah, in Elbert County, they tried. It was a private provider that decided to vaccinate members of the school board, the school district, teachers. And when word got back to the health department, they — they penalized them. They said, no, we're going to we're going to take your vaccine supply. And they only went back to provide Elbert County with just enough vaccine to provide those people who had had one shot, their second shot.

Jonathan Poon: There was never any malicious intent to defy the state and nothing that was trying to move people ahead of each other. It was just trying to vaccinate everybody as quick as we can.

Ellen Eldridge: Dr. Jonathan Poon works at the clinic and he spoke with NBC News about how they were simply trying to vaccinate school employees and senior citizens. They weren't trying to disobey the governor.

Jonathan Poon: It was a shock, but then a lot of anger because we knew that immediately everything that we had tried to do up until now to — to vaccinate our county was — was just laid to waste.

Ellen Eldridge: You know, they're suspended from the vaccine program now through the end of July.

Steve Fennessy: That particular clinic, not the entire county, right?

Ellen Eldridge: Yes. That clinic.

Steve Fennessy: And Ellen, Dr. Chris Rustin at the Georgia Department of Health told NBC News that basically the state was trying to make an example of Elberton by cutting off its vaccine supply

Chris Rustin: …went outside of the phase in such a, almost deliberate manner was something that we could not ignore. And we needed to make sure that others that are — that are vaccinating understand that when we have such limitations on our vaccine supply that we have to follow a plan that's been clearly communicated.

Ellen Eldridge: And so that, again, sort of sent out a vibe, if you will, to educators across the state that confirms their feeling that teachers are not prioritized and that, you know, one place has the audacity to try and — and vaccinate teachers and they get shut down. They get in trouble for it.

Steve Fennessy: So what what are some teachers feeling compelled to do in Georgia?

Ellen Eldridge: You know, by and large, they don't want to break the rules. They want to be fair. They don't want anybody to get sick or die, but they're doing what they can to protect themselves. And I've seen that other people, not necessarily teachers, but people who have health — underlying health issues, who are worried about the virus, they've booked appointments as far as Mississippi.

Steve Fennessy: Wow. So they're driving all the way to Mississippi to get a vaccine.

Ellen Eldridge: That's correct.

It's one thing to say, OK, we're going to we're going to move up. Everybody who's 65 and up is now eligible. But the reality is that the vaccine is still in short supply. And just because you're technically in the 1a category now in Georgia does not mean that you will easily find an appointment or find one in your area. There's an entire Facebook group of volunteers dedicated to helping those in the 1a category in Georgia find and book appointments. And there's many, many examples of people saying, my mother is 75 years old, she can't get an appointment. It's a simple fact that right now the supply is not there. It will continue coming. They're not going to stop manufacturing the vaccines, hopefully we’ll even have approval for the — I believe it's the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that's just one shot — so then we'll have a third candidate and eventually everyone will get vaccinated. But it's — it's taking time.

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to GPB health care reporter Ellen Eldridge. Before we go, let's hear from a public school teacher whom Ellen interviewed. Her name is Debbie and she's getting ready to retire.

Debbie: I don't feel like my district has protected me. I don't feel like my governor has protected me. And I've done what I can to stay well. But no, I don't feel like, you know, our lives matter.

Steve Fennessy: Debbie teaches at a school district in the northern Atlanta suburbs. She's asked us to not use her full name out of concern that she could get in trouble with her employer.

Debbie: I've been face-to-face since the first day of school, with the exception of two weeks when we went digital this year in our district. And I really have wanted the vaccine all along, just like everybody else. I saw on a Facebook page, there is a group of nice people trying to help people get COVID vaccines. And I couldn't sleep last night and I saw that teachers could get vaccinated in Alabama, which is the neighboring state for me.

Steve Fennessy: Debbie told Ellen she signed up on Walmart's website for the vaccine in Alabama. And on Sunday, she's traveling there two-and-a-half hours away to get the shot. As for when Georgia teachers will be eligible for a vaccine here, we're still likely weeks away, if not months, as vaccine supply remains severely limited. We'll continue following the effects of the vaccine rollout at GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Sean Powers is our producer. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.

Transcript by Khari J. Sampson