This district has a vaccine plan for employees but not the doses

Clarksville Montgomery Schools in Tennessee want to get all grades back in person and provide a layer of security for teachers and staff. but a slow rollout from the state is hampering those efforts.
By: | January 22, 2021
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The news was a relief for education leaders across the state of Tennessee. In late December, it was proclaimed that teachers and school staff were being moved into a higher priority category for COVID-19 vaccination – Phase 1B.

Since the announcement, the Clarksville Montgomery County School System has been patiently and anxiously awaiting an even better outcome – the actual deployment of those vaccines. They’re ready to go as soon as they get their hands on them.

On Monday, school reopens in person for pre-k to sixth graders for this district of 36,000 students and 5,200 employees. Teachers will be in front of around 63% of the pool whose families chose face-to-face instruction. The other 37% are in a virtual school created last fall.

The goal is to get all of them back, according to CMCSS Director of Schools Millard House II. But right now, it’s not possible. Cases have been higher among older students, and there just aren’t enough teachers to cover classes throughout the system.

The one key that may get them there? Vaccinations.

“Right now, we have 200 people on Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), or COVID-related leave, and we only have about 200 or so subs available,” House said. “The vaccine is going to make a major difference in bringing that sub base back where we need it. Our plan could allow for us to vaccinate as many as 500 people per day.”

House and a group of 20 leaders on the communicable disease team in the district have been ahead of the curve when it comes to posting data on its dashboard, shifting resources, getting PPE and creating a vaccine deployment plan. They also enlisted the help of the nearby Tennessee College of Applied Technology, which is poised to help in the effort.

Everything is place but the actual vaccines. Some smaller schools in Tennessee have received them for teachers, according to reports. But Clarksville has not. When it does, House says it not only will be able to vaccinate educators but with the potential to do 500 per day, can do a lot to help others in the county.

The trends driving decisions

Earlier this week, Montgomery County dashboard numbers showed a 14% positivity rate. That is one of the highest numbers since it began tracking last year, and it has trended up almost daily since June.

At the school district level, numbers fluctuated throughout the fall, though active cases remained relatively low overall. However, close contacts led to more than 1,000 students being under quarantine during 11 consecutive days in mid-November. There was a bit of a spike in active cases just before the winter break too, including 96 on Dec. 17.

Employee active COVID cases were steady through most of the fall and not off the charts. The single most active cases were notably on the same day as students – Dec. 17., with 67 active cases.

Read more from DA: Florida superintendent urges quick teacher vaccinations

Perhaps the most striking numbers in terms of staffing were the amount of employees on leave related to COVID-19. After remaining below 200 for the first two months, by Nov. 20, 298 employees were in that category. On Dec. 9, 549 district employees were on COVID-related leave. Numbers have declined since, but at the close of the semester, it was at 366.

That made it challenging for the district to cover all classes, thus the decisions to briefly close a couple of schools and go remote with its upper grades. House says the delivery of vaccines is something the district needs to get them all back. But even then, will teachers get them? A survey done by the district shows 43% are willing to get vaccinated, but that’s still better than a state poll that showed only a third wants them.

Looking at those trends and the strong deployment measures in place, District Administration sat down for a conversation with House to discuss both the vaccine plan and the optimism his district has as it sets to reopen:

Why are vaccines so important to school districts?

MH: Transmission of the COVID virus can happen anywhere, with any type of age group, different races, it doesn’t matter. Even though we’re working hard to ensure that we mitigate the risk of transmission, the chance is still there. Having vaccines in the arms of as many employees as possible can prevent individuals transmitting. I’ve had some tough conversations with a handful of our employees that have been hospitalized. To think that a vaccine could very easily prevent that, that in itself is reason for me to make that availability as strong as possible.

How did your vaccination plan come together?

MH: TCAT is a career tech college. We have an early college high school on that campus, and we’ve done great things with them already. They’re excited about the possibility of lending us several students to be a part of our plan. We’ve come together with them, our communicable disease team and we’ve had a strong relationship with our local health department. At least twice a week, they’re in those meetings with us. We already had PODs (Points of dispensing) set up throughout our school system and those were for emergencies. We have never had to execute one, but this was an opportunity for us to not only look at how we can utilize TCAT, but also some of our nurses.

Given the potential learning loss for some students and the optimism around vaccines, how important is it to get children and educators back in the classroom as quickly as possible?

MH: I would much rather us be completely in person, but right now, that’s just not an option. I think we have a chance to have a close-to-normal start to the ‘21-22 school year if we vaccinate as many people as possible and encourage individuals to understand that the advocacy around these vaccines is strong.

That 43% number of employees willing to get the vaccine isn’t high. Do you think there’s a chance it will rise over the coming weeks and months?

MH: My hope is to see more and more individuals – possibly between 50% and 60% of our 5,200 employees eventually get vaccinated. I don’t want to call it peer pressure. I think peer encouragement is something that makes a major difference. When you see that the teacher next door to you took that vaccine and they’re OK and it’s working for them, then stragglers will come behind. I toured the vaccination deployment site about a week and a half ago. They had moved past the emergency responders’ phase of vaccination and two or three more first responders that had missed their day but changed their mind. Peer encouragement pushed them to move forward.

Where does your district stand in being able to deploy the vaccines?

MH: That’s where the problem lies. Right now, in the state of Tennessee, unfortunately, things are moving pretty slow. My former school districts in Charlotte and Tulsa, they’re vaccinating employees now. If vaccines showed up on our doorstep, we could be ready to deploy before the end of the week. It’s not a deployment problem. It’s a supply problem. My expectation is that we probably won’t see 500 doses in one day. So that means we’re going to have to take what we have when it comes and make that work. If that’s 150 doses, we will put together our POD site, and we’ll deploy those doses as quick as possible. We’ve got an electronic sign-up and everything that we need and a very efficient point of dispensing.

Where do your employees stand in the state’s phased rollout of vaccines?

MH: We’re in 1B, and we would love to be in the 1a category. The expectation is for the availability of the vaccine to be anywhere between late February to early March. That’s unacceptable. There’s a lot of push and pressure for school systems to get kids back in person. In my opinion, if that push is out there, there should be the same kind of political push in favor of school systems and school employees across the state having the opportunity to move to 1A instead of 1B.

What are your expectations for reopening and your plans for Monday?

MH: Once we start opening up, we’re going to catch our stride. That summer period to the start of the school year was tough because nobody knew what to expect. We learned that we had contact tracing, our health and safety department putting together an electronic system to manage all of this. We learned to live with COVID and learned to educate kids during COVID as well.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as a district about this COVID-19 experience?

MH: You can’t take one single data point and hang your hat on it, whether to close schools and go completely virtual or not. Early on, that’s what people were looking for and expecting: ‘What’s the number that you’re going to close schools?’ It’s important to understand that there are multiple data points that you have to look at – what your staffing issues may be, what the community spread looks like, do you want to close wings of schools or one particular school? You have to be flexible, and you have to learn along the way.

We’ve done a little bit of everything. We’ve closed a portion of one school, instead of closing the entire school. We’ve closed a grade level and made that grade level go remote. We did everything that we could to ensure that the parents and the children that wanted that in-person option got it. Our community has learned to trust us. Early on, there was a ‘feeling out’ there that we may have been taking a political stance. There was an expectation that we were going to close after fall break, that we were going to go virtual after the election. But I think people started to trust that we are truly doing everything that we can and being as transparent as one can be organizationally to provide them with what our way forward is going to look like.

How much have your employees and staff meant to the district during this time?

MH: They are what make us make us tick. Our employees, we wouldn’t be anything without them. I care dearly for them and I care dearly for their health. They’re the ones that are in front of children. They’re the ones that are in the community. I have so much admiration for the work that they’re doing. We try to think through that in our planning with our communicable disease team. They are a big part, from a health and safety standpoint, of what we plan for and what we think through daily.