President Joe Biden has set an ambitious goal for his first 100 days in office, pledging to administer 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations and to reopen most K-8 schools in that time — telling officials at the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services clear guidance is needed if schools are to reopen safely in that time.
But a panel of experts gathered Thursday for the latest NewsdayLive webinar "Education & COVID-19: What Do We Need?" suggested that despite best intentions that might be easier said than done.
While most districts, their staffs, teachers and students are working hard to make the best of the difficult situations caused by the pandemic, the experts say what's needed now is a better process for getting teachers and staff vaccinated and making schools safe for live, in-person learning.
"I know President Biden wants all schools open in the first 100 days," Roosevelt Schools Superintendent Deborah Wortham said, but wondered "what measures do we have to go through" regarding equity and availability of vaccines in order to do so.
And, she said, for some teachers there's the dilemma of pitting personal choice against professional duty — do they want to be vaccinated given that there are questions over whether the vaccine has been tested enough to ensure its safety.
To that end panelist Dr. Lauren Block, assistant professor at the Institute of Health Innovations & Outcomes Research, Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, and assistant professor at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University, said she'd urge anyone who wasn't immunocompromised when it comes to vaccinations to get the COVID shot.
"Schools," Block said, "can only remain open if students and teachers are not quarantined."
But panelist Ron Verderber, president of the Jericho Teachers Association, said county, state and federal governments all needed to do a better job in making both vaccines — and the appointments to get vaccinated — available to people who are eligible to get them.
Though teachers and school district employees are high on the priority lists for vaccinations, he said, many of the agencies tasked with vaccinating those eligible couldn't always determine who meets the criteria to get the shot.
"I don't understand," he said, "why the Department of Health hasn't provided guidance for school districts [on how to get teachers vaccinated]," Verderber said. "Why no one has reached out to districts for lists of eligible employees … I can't get an appointment because no one knows I'm eligible."
"We continue to keep our doors open, continue to teach our students, continue to keep the ship moving," said Kevin R. Simmons, principal at Smithtown High School East. But, he said: "We have to have hope, inspire and believe."