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The Bruno Brief: Rhode Island teachers become COVID-19 vaccine VIPs

By , and
The Bruno Brief Team
Monday, March 22, 2021

In this week’s episode of The Bruno Brief, we look into Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, which contrasts from the previous plan by prioritizing occupation in expanding eligibility. We speak to Staff Writer Stella Olken-Hunt, who heard from Providence educators about how the new plan has impacted them.

Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed, and send us tips and feedback for the next episode: herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU.

Ben Glickman 

I’m Ben Glickman, and you’re listening to The Bruno Brief, from The Brown Daily Herald and WBRU. Each week, we take you inside one of The Brown Daily Herald’s top stories. On March 9, Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee announced a new plan to prioritize school teachers in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Previously, the state’s plan had prioritized by age, health conditions and geography, but not by occupation. This week, we speak with Stella Olken-Hunt, a staff writer for The Herald, about the change in vaccine strategy and how Rhode Island’s teachers are reacting. Stella, thanks so much for being here.

Stella Olken-Hunt 

Thanks for having me.

Ben Glickman 

Can you tell us what some of your sources’ reactions were to the news that they would be made eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine?

Stella Olken-Hunt 

A lot of the sources have been in school since Sept. 1, and a lot of them have been in classrooms within close proximity to students, so I think it came as a pretty big relief to hear that they were finally being prioritized with the new governor Mckee, knowing that they wouldn’t have to be as concerned about their own health and the health of their students.

Ben Glickman 

Here’s Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union.

Maribeth Calabro 

We’ve been in school since September, so folks who are in school, and given the number of cases that we’ve had and the number of quarantines that we’ve had, we truly believe that we should have been prioritized, especially those of us who have been in buildings that were impacted with more than a random amount of COVID positive cases.

Stella Olken-Hunt 

They’re in the first round of doses through the plan that Governor McKee announced, which I believe started on March 10, and that would be high school teachers. And VLA, or Virtual Learning Academy teachers, who’ve been teaching virtually. High school teachers because their students are more ingrained within the community. They either have jobs or they’re in multiple classes, they drive cars and they really want to prioritize the teachers in that sense. And VLA because they tend to already be high-risk given that they are teaching virtually.

Ben Glickman 

So, Stella, can you give us some context for Rhode Island’s vaccine plan before this announcement by Governor McKee? What was the state’s strategy?

Stella Olken-Hunt 

It was age group-based and also whether you have a preexisting condition, so they weren’t doing it based on occupation. They were also prioritizing those who were frontline workers, which was pretty common across the whole nation. They were prioritizing people 65 and over and now they’re starting to prioritize people with preexisting conditions, 16 to 64. Governor McKee, he announced he wanted to prioritize teachers to get them back into schools and really uplifting the economy. He really did that quickly.

Maribeth Calabro 

We’re glad that our new governor McKee was able to do that for us and prioritize this relatively quickly. I don’t even think that the former governor was in the sky on her way to Washington when he made that announcement, so it came as a huge relief to teachers.

Ben Glickman 

Tell us a little bit about what the logic is to prioritize teachers for vaccination, because I know that a lot of the thinking behind prioritizing older residents and people with preexisting conditions is that these vaccinations would minimize hospitalizations. Is it the same logic with teachers or is it something else?

Stella Olken-Hunt 

I think with this plan, Governor McKee just wanted to provide an additional opportunity or place to get vaccines for staff. And it’s not just for teachers in Rhode Island, it’s also for child care workers. And it’s for other educators and staff who would work in the district. So, I think the idea behind this was really to try to get teachers back into school. And because teachers are interacting with so many students, by vaccinating the teachers, by default, you have kind of that further safety measure of not only parents wanting to send their children back to school, but also just feeling generally more safe to go in the classroom and be able to teach kind of in the more normal way, like before there was the pandemic.

Ben Glickman 

So that’s based around a conviction that in-person schooling is really something that children and students in Rhode Island need, right?

Stella Olken-Hunt 

I think people have come to understand that virtual learning is not going to be the same as in-person learning. I mean, you can try to replicate it as best as you can. And I think that’s what the Virtual Learning Academy has done. But I think in-person learning does have that interaction and the skills that are quite different, especially when you’re teaching younger students. My mom’s a teacher, and so she would argue that being in person with small children is really important, but really difficult to do during a pandemic.

Ben Glickman 

So, tell us a little bit more about what role Governor McKee played in that switch. You were telling us about how Raimondo’s plan seemed to differ. Was this something that McKee specifically was pushing for?

Stella Olken-Hunt 

He was really pushing for teachers to be vaccinated, and he was pushing for it more than the predecessor, Governor Raimondo, and certainly he was making sure that the effort was followed through on, that teachers were prioritized as quickly as possible with the new influx of vaccines coming into Rhode Island. I don’t know exactly what his role was in that and if he was the only proponent pushing for the vaccination of teachers. My guess is that there were probably a lot of others, but he was definitely one player in prioritizing teachers. And one could probably say a pretty important player. In late January, Governor McKee actually disagreed with Governor Raimondo, this plan to not prioritize based on occupation and thus not prioritize teachers, and he publicly made a statement that he thought we should prioritize teachers.

Ben Glickman

Here is Dan McKee in a news conference on Jan. 14.

Governor Dan McKee  

The ultimate goal is to get as many kids in classrooms as we can. We’ve got to understand that hundreds of hours of time have been lost. 

Ben Glickman

Here he is again on Jan. 23.

Governor Dan McKee

The teachers need to be elevated in order for our economy to open up. 

Ben Glickman 

Now that Rhode Island has made this decision to vaccinate teachers, how will this plan be implemented?

Stella Olken-Hunt 

Yeah, so the plan kind of functions as an alternative way to get vaccinated. Teachers can still get vaccinated through CVS or Walgreens, or even Vaccinate Rhode Island, but this is also another way to do that. So, they set up this one designated location for vaccinating teachers and staff within Providence, and it is 335R Prairie Avenue, and there are three shifts all structured around hours that teachers aren’t working so they wouldn’t have to leave the classroom or get a substitute teacher to cover them while they get the vaccination. It’s not only applying to public schools within the Providence District. It’s also private and charter schools, which is an additional benefit, so they don’t have to try to figure that out for themselves. In the Providence Journal, there was an estimation that 18,500 people will be vaccinated under the new program for educators.

Ben Glickman 

How big of a change will this program make in the course of vaccinations already happening? Were many teachers already getting vaccinated before this plan was announced?

Stella Olken-Hunt 

Yeah, so from my understanding, a lot of teachers were already vaccinated, either they were in the 64 and older range or they had some existing condition, or right as they were prioritized with Governor McKee’s announcement, they signed up, not through the plan, but through a different resource. So, I think it definitely will make a big difference. I’m not sure exactly how much of a difference it’ll make, but it will definitely provide some sense of ease because they have this alternative method of signing up. Also, given that the Vaccinate Rhode Island website has had a couple issues, this will definitely be another way to do that.

Ben Glickman 

What does this mean for how Rhode Island schools are going to look going forward? Many districts have already had in-person learning or hybrid learning, so does this mean that school functions will be even closer to what they were before the pandemic?

Stella Olken-Hunt 

Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, remarked that she doesn’t think that the way the classrooms are currently set up is going to change in the near future with the vaccination of teachers. That being said, there is going to likely be some change just because of the reaction of the parents.

Maribeth Calabro 

There are students who are currently in Virtual Academy who are coming back into schools. I think parents may feel a little more comfortable sending their students back once they feel like the majority of educators have been vaccinated. So, we may see a resurgence of students coming back into brick and mortar. Configurations within classrooms will change just by virtue of students coming back into the schools.

Ben Glickman 

If there’s not going to be a change in the literal organization of schools and classrooms, did the sources you spoke to for this story say that their outlook would change?

Stella Olken-Hunt 

Yeah, most of the sources agreed that they would just feel more at ease, even if the way that the classroom is structured might not change immediately.

Maribeth Calabro 

I will say that there was a real lightness about the morale of folks, when we heard that we will be prioritized, and now that folks have — a lot of our teachers have — had the first vaccine, I think there is a sense of being able to breathe a little bit.

Ben Glickman 

Does this new plan mean that all teachers will have to be vaccinated? 

Stella Olken-Hunt 

No, it doesn’t. So, Laura Hart, she’s a spokesperson from the Providence Public School District, she noted that it’s still optional. So, they’re not requiring teachers now or in the near future to get the vaccine. It’s still up to their discretion. And Governor McKee with his predictions also noted that not all teachers will get the vaccine even though a majority of them most likely will.

Ben Glickman 

Stella, thanks so much for being with us. 

Stella Olken-Hunt 

Yeah, thanks so much for having me speak. 

Ben Glickman 

In other news, the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island dismissed a class action lawsuit brought by students from Brown and three other Rhode Island universities seeking tuition refunds for the spring 2020 semester. Chief Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. ruled that the university had no contractual obligation to provide in-person schooling so students are not entitled to partial refunds on their tuition. This has been The Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Livi Burdette, Corey Gelb-Bicknell and me. The Bruno Brief is an equal partnership between WBRU and The Brown Daily Herald. I’m Ben Glickman. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

____________________

Produced by: Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman and Corey Gelb-Bicknell

Music: 

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Begrudge by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Bivly by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Basketliner by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Special thanks to Emily Teng and Olivia Burdette for cover design.

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