Eighth grade teacher Devin Morris happily waited in the parking lot of the Skokie Health Department last week. He was among the first group of teachers in Illinois to get the initial dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
“We weren’t allowed inside until it was five minutes prior to our appointment,” Morris said. “It was very spaced out. I think it was just an exemplary way of giving the vaccine.”
Illinois as a whole moves to the phase 1b of its vaccination rollout on Monday. Some Illinois teachers, like Morris, got vaccinated ahead of schedule, while others will have to wait weeks or even months to be inoculated. That’s as the debate continues over whether it is safe to reopen schools, with some teachers pushing for vaccination before they return.
Morris teaches at Old Orchard Junior High in north suburban Skokie. His district hasn’t set a date yet for reopening schools, and Morris applauds that measured approach.
But when schools return, he and his colleagues will have benefited from the early vaccination start provided by the Village of Skokie.
“We have vaccinated both phase 1a healthcare workers and phase 1b Skokie school educators to date,” said Ann Tennes, director of marketing and communications with the Village of Skokie.
The health department has been coordinating with school districts in Skokie to get faculty and staff registered, even those who aren’t Skokie residents.
“Having those teachers vaccinated and providing those teachers and the districts with assurance that the teachers can go into those classrooms safely is a tremendous benefit,” Tennes said.
Other health departments are preparing to vaccinate teachers soon. Will County expects to begin in February. Some school districts there are planning to set up clinics on their campuses.
Lake County estimates it could begin vaccinating teachers in early February. Lea Bacci with the Lake County Health Department said counties across the state are on different timelines, especially smaller counties that may have already completed the first phase of vaccinations.
“They may have received enough vaccines that they have already completed their vaccination of phase 1a because they don’t have very many health care providers in their jurisdiction,” she said.
Bacci said the health department is working with local school districts to set up two vaccination sites specifically for preK through grade 12 educators.
Deerfield-based Walgreens is partnering with Deerfield Public Schools District 109 and will begin administering vaccines to staff next week.
The Illinois Department of Public Health said teachers will be able to receive vaccines anywhere they are available. Retail pharmacies are coming online and the state is trying to increase the number of providers, but supply is still limited.
Meanwhile, in Evanston it may have been a bit of luck that teachers there began getting their vaccinations this week.
“Many people may think that we set this up with the vaccines,” said District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton. “I wish I had that kind of skill to do that. It’s just the way it fell.”
AMITA Health reached out to Horton offering to vaccinate district teachers, and within a matter of days teachers got their first doses at nearby St. Francis Hospital.
The district has been remote since the start of the school year to the frustration of some families. Horton said the timing is working in the district’s favor since it plans to return to a hybrid learning model mid-February. The vaccine eases a lot of tensions surrounding reopening.
“Our families are passionate,” Horton said. “They are understanding, and they are ready to get their children back in school. And more importantly, our staff miss our students.”
Chicago teachers are expected to begin getting vaccinated next month, but the Chicago Teachers Union doesn’t want teachers forced to return before they’re vaccinated. Union members voted Sunday to teach remotely only until a deal on reopening is reached with Chicago Public Schools. That collective action is slated to begin on Wednesday, when about 10,000 elementary teachers are expected back in school buildings.
CPS said on Friday it will take months to vaccinate all staff but argues it’s safe for students and staff to be in buildings before they’re inoculated.
Skokie teacher Devin Morris is hopeful he’ll be back in the classroom soon, and grateful he doesn’t have to worry as much about the virus.
“I’m very fortunate to get the vaccine when I did as opposed to Chicago teachers,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely vital to make sure that teachers get vaccinated and treated just the way we are, as essential workers.”