State’s policy reversal made shots possible
By Marcy Stamper
Ninety-six local teachers, school-bus drivers, coaches and classroom volunteers got their first COVID vaccinations on Saturday (March 6), thanks to precise coordination including a trip to Tonasket by two school employees to pick up the vaccines in a special refrigerator that plugged into their car.
The vaccine clinic at Methow Valley Elementary School was arranged within 24 hours of Pres. Joe Biden’s announcement on Tuesday (March 2) prioritizing teachers and other school employees for vaccines.
Despite repeated pleas from school administrators and teachers’ unions to move educators up in the queue, Washington state had held fast to its plan to first vaccinate those deemed at higher risk, such as health care workers and people over 65. But after Biden’s announcement, Gov. Jay Inslee and state health officials followed the presidential directive and made school employees eligible immediately.
The Methow Valley School District and its local health care partners were prepared. They already had experience teaming up with Aero Methow Rescue Service on four earlier vaccine clinics at the school, which were based on the same incident command system used for managing large numbers of people during a fire or other emergency, school nurse Adriana Vanbianchi said.
At each of the previous four clinics, Aero Methow and other health care providers vaccinated about 250 people in five hours. They were confident they could double that, Vanbianchi said. Indeed, on Saturday they vaccinated 96 people in just an hour.
When teachers became eligible, North Valley Hospital contacted Aero Methow to offer vaccines for school staff in the Methow, Vanbianchi said. Vanbianchi notified her phone tree at the schools — including the school bus supervisor, athletic director and volunteer coordinators — so they could spread the word about the clinic.
Family Health Centers provided syringes. Confluence Health gave needles. Elementary school secretary Georgia Darwood and fourth-grade teacher Tiffany Surface headed to North Valley Hospital to pick up the vaccines. Custodial staff set up the gym for the clinic.
Although the weekend clinic came together quickly, some teachers pounced on the opportunity to be vaccinated even earlier. Liberty Bell junior high humanities and drama teacher Kelly Grayum was so eager to get his shot that he registered just hours after Inslee’s announcement, snagging the last appointment at the mass vaccination site in Wenatchee on Wednesday after navigating “a byzantine multitude of websites.”
Grayum, like most of the staff, has been working in person with students since September. And he’s felt comfortable teaching because of the comprehensive protocols the district put in place. “The vaccine won’t change my day-to-day reality. It just gives me peace of mind,” Grayum said. And it makes herd immunity seem closer, he said.
Methow Valley School Superintendent Tom Venable, who’d written three (still unanswered) letters begging the governor to recognize that teachers and other staff in this district were already providing in-person instruction, was elated that they were finally prioritized as “frontline workers.”
Venable got his vaccine on Saturday. His sixth-grade daughter, Ingrid, asked him to “please tell them thank you for vaccinating our teachers. They deserve it. They are my heroes.”
Despite the jubilation and relief, Venable pointed to troubling rates of academic apathy, depression and suicide, and unreported abuse and neglect that have spiked in the year of school closures. He’s concerned that the delay in vaccinating school staff may have prolonged these struggles by limiting access to people who could help.
“I’m thankful the governor finally listened to the president. I feel fortunate,” Grayum said. “I think everyone should get the vaccine. I’m no more qualified than grocery store workers or agricultural workers.”