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Howard school board sends letter to Hogan requesting more COVID-19 vaccines for educators before hybrid start

The Howard County Board of Education sent a letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday urging him to provide more COVID-19 vaccine doses to the county for school system educators.

The letter requests 20,000 vaccines by Feb. 15 to ensure the system’s nearly 10,000 staff members will be at least partially vaccinated by the start of hybrid learning on March 1.

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“The educators of Howard County are ready and willing to return to the buildings,” reads the letter signed by board Chair Chao Wu. “A vaccination would allow them to focus wholly on the task of educating our children.”

While the board members are urging the governor for more vaccines, the letter isn’t in accordance with how the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are being distributed in the country and state.

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The federal government, spearheaded by Operation Warp Speed, is distributing the vaccine to states and territories proportionally. When Maryland receives the doses, Hogan has chosen to distribute them to the 24 jurisdictions proportionally as well.

“The state is dividing it to each jurisdiction on a pro rata basis. This is not an issue of not enough supply in those areas. It’s about convincing people to take it,” said Hogan at a news conference last week when asked if he would give more vaccines to areas with higher minority populations.

If Howard County were to receive additional vaccines simply to meet the board’s request, that means another jurisdiction would receive fewer vaccines.

“We continue to follow the science, and we agree with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] director that schools can safely reopen without vaccinating teachers,” Hogan spokesperson Mike Ricci wrote in an email Thursday afternoon.

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On Wednesday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said teachers receiving vaccines is not a “prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.” Howard County school system Superintendent Michael Martirano issued a similar sentiment last week when he said the county’s current supply of vaccines means getting educators vaccinated couldn’t be a “prerequisite” for a hybrid return starting March 1.

Also, the Howard County school system isn’t the only district hoping to get its staff vaccinated before March 1. Hogan’s surprise announcement on Jan. 21 that he would explore consequences for systems that didn’t get students back in classrooms by March 1 applied to all public schools.

Wu said the board is aware that vaccines are being distributed proportionally and said the letter was for “advocacy.” While the letter named all Howard’s school board members, Wu said the decision to send the letter was not unanimous but did not answer who didn’t want to send it.

While the request doesn’t fall in line with the pro rata distribution of the vaccine, that doesn’t mean 20,000 doses coming to Howard County by Feb. 15 is impossible. It would require, however, a sharp increase in doses from the federal government.

Earlier this week, Howard County Health Officer Dr. Maura Rossman expressed concern about the county health department receiving 2,000 vaccines this week — down 66% from the previous week. As distribution has steadily increased across the country, the Maryland Department of Health broadened the allocation of the vaccine to additional providers, including hospitals, retail pharmacies and large group practices like Kaiser Permanente. That means more doses overall for Howard countians but fewer doses for county health departments to distribute.

As of Thursday, 38,764 vaccines have been administered in Howard County since late December, according to the state health department. That figure includes 30,741 first doses and 8,023 second doses.

In response to the board’s letter, Colleen Morris, the president of the county’s teachers union, reiterated what she has said multiple times since the board unanimously approved a hybrid model to roll out from March 1 through April 12.

“We appreciate the request for vaccines,” wrote Morris on the Howard County Education Association’s Facebook page, “but you already have the power to ensure educators are immunized. Forcing us back March 1 was the board’s choice, not Hogan’s.”

The letter from the board came the same day that Martirano announced Johns Hopkins Medicine was providing an additional 500 vaccine doses — on top of the 1,000 doses the school system received Thursday from the Howard County Health Department — for district educators.

Martirano said the vaccines from the health department “should cover” all school system staff in the first two tiers of the district’s four-tier system within Phase 1B of the county’s plan. The first two tiers include school nurses, health assistants, food and nutrition staff, custodians and other staff currently working in person. The additional 500 doses from Johns Hopkins are expected to be the first given to educators in the third tier, which is for all school-based staff who are returning for hybrid learning. The final tier includes nonschool-based staff.

“I know the pace of vaccine distribution has been frustrating, however, we have still made significant strides forward since late December, when we had no approved vaccines,” Martirano wrote in an email to staff Wednesday. “It has only been a few weeks and I am encouraged by the announcements by the federal government about increases in state allocations as well as news of additional vaccines that may be moving forward in the approval process.”

While board members and Martirano have said they want all of the approximately 10,000 school staff to be vaccinated before returning, Rossman said it is “impossible” for her to guarantee that.

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