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Rush University Medical Center prepared COVID-19 vaccination stations in December to inoculate health care workers. Illinois’ second vaccination phase, which began Jan. 25, includes school staff, other essential workers and senior citizens.

Manuel Martinez

Chicago Teachers Forced To Compete With Each Other To Secure COVID-19 Vaccination Slots

Eva Corona, like many Chicago Public Schools teachers, felt hopeful when school staff became eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 on Jan. 25.

A single mother of five children, she fears going back to school in person without a vaccine. One of her kids has a serious medical condition and is undergoing chemotherapy. Corona also lives with her mother, who is 79 years old.

But so far, finding a way to get vaccinated has been one long exercise in frustration. There are no appointments to be had, and it’s difficult to keep refreshing several links online to search while she’s busy teaching and helping her own kids with school.

Getting teachers vaccinated before they return is a major sticking point in negotiation between CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union. The resumption of in-person classes has been pushed back until at least Monday while negotiations continue. But as the city grapples with a limited vaccine supply, securing appointments is shaping up to be a long and slow process for CPS staff, as well as for teachers in Catholic and private schools.

CPS and Archdiocese of Chicago officials say they will start offering the vaccine directly to teachers in mid February in a rollout that could takes months. Meanwhile, newly eligible employees can independently pursue vaccines through their own health care networks.

But making teachers hunt for their own vaccination feels like some sort of bizarre Hunger Games situation,” CTU attorney Thad Goodchild, said at a press conference on Sunday.

With a low supply and high demand, many teachers, including Corona and her CPS co-workers, say getting one is like winning the lottery.

“Some of my colleagues have started sharing with each other links so that they could find appointments at a Jewel or a Walgreens,” said Corona, adding that at one point some of them got appointments at a Jewel-Osco but then their appointments were canceled.

CPS leaders say they sympathize with teachers anxious for their shots, and say they are doing their best with limited supply.

“There is nothing we want more but to get the shots in the arms of our dedicated staff,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said when she announced her vaccination plan last month.

However, she and city public health officials insist schools are safe to reopen now, without vaccinating teachers, with the protocols they’ve put in place. On Wednesday, the new CDC director said vaccinating teachers isn’t required for the safe reopening of schools.

CPS plans to offer vaccination at four city sites and is prioritizing staff with the greatest exposure risk as well as staff who have been reporting to schools since the beginning of the pandemic.

This includes lunch room staff, security guards and staff who are over the age of 65 or have high risk medical conditions. Teachers are in the second priority group.

For health care workers who were in the first vaccination phase, CPS says 2,500 now have the opportunity to be vaccinated. This came after complaints that no process was set up for these workers. CPS is also now prioritizing school clerks, who have been working in schools for months.

High demand, low supply

Still, city officials keep acknowledging the big problem — extremely low vaccine supply. Last week Chicago received nearly 40,000 first doses. But more than 700,000 Chicagoans are eligible in this vaccination phase, which also includes people 65 and older and other essential frontline workers. City officials are splitting the supply with thousands of other eligible people, including first responders.

CTU leaders say they understand supply is low and other essential employees need to be prioritized. But they say city officials need to better communicate their vaccination strategy.

“People are texting each other, running around the city to try to get a dose of vaccine,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said at a press conference Sunday. “There is no attempt to coordinate that and try to figure out how those doses could go to people that help get our schools open.”

City officials announced Tuesday a new website where eligible Chicagoans can sign up to be notified when appointments with the city or at hospitals or pharmacies become available.

Meanwhile, many teachers from other schools including charters, catholic and independent schools are also trying to find appointments on their own. They say it feels like a big race.

“At this point we are all somewhat in competition with each other,” said Tim Costello, president of the Lake Michigan Association of Independent Schools. “We are really advocating for utilizing any and all options — Walgreens, CVS, Jewel Osco, your insurance, hospital centers.”

Some Catholic school teachers also say they feel like they are playing a slot machine as they try to find appointments.

“I have been unsuccessful,” said Ryan Knott, a kindergarten teacher at a South Side Catholic school. He has been teaching in person for about five months. “I’ve had a couple appointments cancelled because the code has expired and the link was invalid for teachers and it was actually meant for health care workers.”

That also happened to Chicago Public Schools teachers. Knott said he is waiting for Archdiocese officials to come through with their vaccination plan in mid-February as promised.

The archdiocese said it is working through an alliance of faith-based schools, including Catholic, Orthodox Jewish and Lutheran schools to get about 6,200 staff members vaccinated.

“We understand that this will take several weeks to accomplish,” said Justin Lombardo, chair of our COVID Task Force and chief human resources officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “We are in the process of working out the significant logistic details right now.”

An uncomfortable gatekeeper

In this race to get vaccinated, private school teachers on the North Side have been accused of cutting to the front of the line and getting vaccinated right away.

“When we opened up, we got flooded with requests from public and private schools and so it’s very difficult,” said Dr. Rahul Khare, CEO of Innovative Express Care on the North Side. It’s one of several private health care providers the city picked to help administer vaccines.

Khare says the city has sent three vaccine shipments so far. That included 300 doses for his employees, 5,000 the following week and just 1,000 this week.

He said he gives about 75% of the vaccines to city employees, including CPS teachers. The rest goes to people in the community who are eligible, including private school staff. He says some of those teachers have come by for their shots.

He said it’s easier to get everyone at smaller private schools fully vaccinated, mentioning Near North Montessori and Francis Parker, because they have relatively few employees.

Khare says it’s hard for him to say yes to some and no to others. “They are all important, they all do good work and are helping make Chicago a better place. This is what’s uncomfortable for me as a gatekeeper.”

He wants city officials to be clear about how they want vaccines to be given out. As the main distributors, he said, the city ultimately should be making the decisions.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.

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