Chris Timmis insists he and Dexter Community Schools personnel have done everything possible to get students into the classroom two days a week.
As the Dexter superintendent looks down from a balcony overlooking desks spread out evenly across the Dexter High School cafeteria, students scan QR codes on the corner of their socially distant desks to bring up the lunch orders that will be brought to them in prepackaged brown bags.
Orange cones serve as makeshift roundabouts stationed at the intersections of road-resembling hallways lined with tape and signage reminding students to socially distance. Hand sanitizer stations are on the walls and everywhere else. Drinking fountains are off limits.
Around 400 Dexter students attended in-person classes recently for first time this year in this building built for 1,200. It’s a drastically different experience than they were used to.
With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others urging schools across the country to open, Washtenaw County districts like Dexter are working to bring even more students back despite having the lowest percentage of vaccinated teachers and staff in Michigan.
“We need to find a way to get them vaccinated quicker,” Timmis said, noting about half of Dexter’s teachers and staff have gotten the vaccine.
Vaccinations – the latest layer of COVID-19 protection schools can provide – are still highly sought in some Michigan counties where supply is scarce. And these vaccinations, school district officials have said, play a role in getting kids back in their classrooms.
A recent Michigan Education Association survey shows more than 63% of the state’s school employees are either vaccinated or in the process of being vaccinated against the virus. Common among the more successful counties is a health department, a major health system and school districts working together to make it a priority to get teachers vaccinated.
The success Marquette Area Public Schools and other Marquette County districts have had in getting at least 88.06% percent of the county’s teachers vaccinated or scheduled for vaccination – the best rate in the state – can be attributed to this teamwork that Superintendent William Saunders described “as close to flawless as what we could have hoped for.”
A top priority
In Marquette County, which has a population of about 67,000 residents, the health department worked with school districts in coordination with UP Health System to set up large-scale vaccination clinics on the county’s east and west ends.
It was a priority to get teachers vaccinated because they are face-to-face with 20 to 25 students daily, Saunders said. Once the doses were available, every teacher in the district was offered a chance to get them.
“As we had rising COVID numbers – some of the highest in the country in November and December – certainly there were some real fears with that,” Saunders said. “Getting that vaccination as soon as possible helped eliminate some of those fears, but also added a layer of protection and health and safety for our employees.”
A similar partnership has helped Dearborn Public Schools vaccinate around 2,000 of its 2,700 teachers and staff members, Superintendent Glenn Maleyko said. The Wayne County Health Department recently partnered with Detroit Medical Center Children’s Hospital to vaccinate the county’s teachers.
All teachers and staff who wanted the vaccine have had the option to receive it, Maleyko said, as Dearborn moves to in-person learning for the first time on March 1. Maleyko describes vaccinations as an “x factor of an extra layer of safety.”
“There was some frustration early in the months from a lot of people, but the reality is we knew the doses weren’t there yet,” Maleyko said. “Now, as students are coming into schools, it’s a big burden off the shoulders of staff.”
Lacking partners or supply?
Washtenaw County, on the other hand, finds itself with a lack of COVID-19 vaccine supply, despite being one of nine Michigan counties still at the highest risk for the virus based on the seven-day average of new cases.
Washtenaw County also has approximately 31,700 school and child care employees eligible for vaccination among the nearly 80,000 eligible residents in the second vaccination eligibility group, which has seen its progress stunted by the number of health care workers requiring vaccine doses in the first eligibility group.