by Jim Coleman —

In hopes of jumpstarting a return to normalcy, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted 13-0 in favor of sending a resolution to Gov. Bill Lee that urges moving teachers to the front of the COVID-19 vaccination lines to speed up school reopenings.

“Hopefully this will catch the minds and hearts of our legislators in Nashville and will assist in, hopefully, them understanding that our teachers, our administrators, our students, our superintendent, is in favor of opening K-12 education in the Shelby County Schools,” said Commissioner Van Turner Jr., who introduced the add-on item to the commission’s Monday (Feb. 8) agenda.

Turner added, “We also want to make sure that we do it in a safe way.”

The resolution also supports remote learning until a school reentry plan has been assessed. Part of that assessment involves a survey to decide who in the school system is vaccinated first.

In January, the Shelby County Health Department estimated teachers would begin receiving vaccines around March.

“It is my understanding that the survey has been done – if not it should be – to see if 50 percent is going to receive it. Part of that is because of just planning. So, we’re going to know how much vaccine we are going to need to have available,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, health officer for the Shelby County Health Department.

This will be part of a two-fold approach that includes employing school nurses to assist in vaccinations. Schools could effectively turn into vaccination sites for educators and administrators. 

In addition to educating more than100,000 students, SCS has more than 15,000 employees working in its 200-plus school and administration buildings. Vaccination of teachers and other employees is seen as the logical first step in students returning to class. 

“With the magnitude and sheer numbers of the school system, I would say that they should be bumped up providing COVID vaccinations because schools affect so much,” said Turner.

As students re-enter schools, it will free many parents to return to the workplace as well.

Like their children, many parents have turned to remote work as the pandemic runs its course. However, many don’t have the option of remote work. As a result, many have left the workforce. 

Now that vaccines have arrived, reopening schools is viewed by many as the lynchpin to a broader economic reopening.

“Parents can’t work because they are at home trying to take care of the young ones. Businesses can’t reopen because they are trying to deal with education issues,” Turner said.

He added, “I understand if we reopen schools – that’s probably half of the way to getting back to a normal society. It is critical, but we have to also make sure that our young people, our instructors, our educators are protected.”

Since being introduced in November of last year, the rollout of vaccines has been disorganized.

During the waning days of the Trump administration, the federal government had largely taken a hands-off approach to its distribution, leaving much of the planning, coordination and execution to the states and pharmaceutical companies producing the vaccines.

The Biden administration has promised a more aggressive tact. Still, the effort will require collaboration between the federal and state governments.

In Shelby County, vaccinations are available to those 70 and older, and front-line workers. This will be followed by Phase B, which includes teachers, childcare workers, dispatch workers and non-frontline first responders.

It was announced Monday (Feb. 8) that teachers in Nashville would receive their first dose on Feb. 20 as its school system begins a phased re-entry. 

As a sign of how hard doses of the vaccine are to come by in population centers, its teachers had previously been allowed to travel to other districts where shots were available. 

“It is not going to do us much good for the state to say, ‘Yeah, you can vaccinate teachers,’ but don’t provide additional vaccines in order for us to do it,” said Randolph.

Commissioner Michael Whaley said if it comes down to eligibility, “one or two teachers being vaccinated is better than none being vaccinated. … Every vaccine we get into arms is better than not going anywhere.”