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Baltimore City Public Schools to begin vaccinating 500 teachers and staff a week

Baltimore City Public Schools will begin immediately vaccinating 500 teachers and other staff member a week in partnership with Johns Hopkins Medicine, schools CEO Sonja Santelises announced Monday.

But unless the vaccine supply increases dramatically, it could take nearly five months — or roughly until the end of the school year — for all 10,000 city teachers to receive even the first of the two doses necessary to provide the most immunity to the lethal coronavirus.

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“This is one step among what will be many others to provide vaccination opportunities for our teachers, custodians and staff,” Santelises said during an afternoon news conference to announce the program with Dr. Gabor David Kelen, director of emergency medicine for Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“We are undertaking this effort because we heard from a number of teachers that access to the vaccine and testing will make a difference in their comfort level,” she said. “In the first 30 minutes after the new program was announced, we had more than 100 teachers who signed up to receive the vaccine.”

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About 2,000 of the district’s 85,000 students are now attending in-person classes inside 27 schools. In-person learning is scheduled to resume by March 1 for most other students, with the exception of middle school pupils.

Maryland’s vaccination program entered Phase 1B Monday, making inoculations available to teachers, school staff, child care providers, assisted-living residents and others living in congregate-living facilities and high-risk inmates and detainees, as well as anyone 75 or older.

Vaccinations will begin Tuesday, administered by Hopkins physicians and nurses to school staff who already were working with students in-person, including teachers, meal service workers, custodians and administrators, Santelisis said.

“We know how important it is to the long-term health and well-being of our city and our neighbors to see the safe and successful reopening of city schools,” Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels wrote in an email statement. “I am glad Johns Hopkins can fulfill its mission to support the city and its citizens — especially our youngest — through this urgent and important partnership.”

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As many as 500 additional vaccines will be issued in each subsequent week. If the number of candidates for the vaccine exceeds the available slots, appointments will be distributed randomly. But school staff members will not be required to take the vaccine.

Kelen acknowledged that the state’s vaccine rollout is slower than he would like and said he will ask Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration to set aside additional vaccines for school staff.

“We anticipate that it could take 20 weeks to vaccinate about 10,000 teachers,” Kelen said.

“That is not a particularly strong timeline. We are partnering with the state to see if they can free up more vaccines for this program. If we can get commitments for more vaccine, will be happy to ramp this up considerably. We’re committed to getting our teachers to a good place where they can feel more comfortable teaching the children in our city.”

Santelises said she informed the Baltimore Teachers Union of the vaccination program during a phone call on Friday with union president Diamonte Brown.

Most teachers are excited at the opportunity to receive the vaccine, said Zach Taylor, a union vice president. But, he added, the program alone won’t calm the fears of those who fear becoming ill as infections spike nationwide.

“Our members are frightened for their lives,” Taylor said. ”They don’t want to be put in an unsafe situation, especially when help seems as though it’s right around the corner. The decision to resume in-person learning at this time seems hasty, and we don’t understand why it has to be now.”

Most schools throughout Central Maryland have remained closed. But Santelises has been pushing a return to in-person teaching based on data showing that a large percentage of Baltimore City Public School students had failing grades in the first quarter.

Even before the vaccinations can be fully rolled out, Santelises said, she believes that schools are safe. The school system has invested in new, more efficient air purifiers, she said. Resuming in-person learning is voluntary for students, and she estimates that only about 25% of those eligible will return to classrooms this year.

“I understand that going into the building for the first time is scary,” she said. “But thankfully, we have not seen in-school transmission of COVID-19.”

Taylor said teachers are eager to return to the classroom once they have received both doses of the vaccine.

Since most parents of city students are likely to keep their children home, he thinks the schools can function efficiently with a reduced staff.

”We think that the only teachers who should be in the buildings are those who are there voluntarily and who have been fully vaccinated,” he said. ”Don’t get me wrong — our members are eager to return to the buildings we can do so safely. But the plan right now is putting us in harm’s way.”

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