Robert Ganley teaches a U.S. history class at Old Orchard Beach High School on Monday. Ganley says the high school is lucky to be able to have in-person learning for all students four days a week, and when teachers can get vaccinated, other school districts may be able to expand their days of in-person learning. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maine is not among the 26 states that have publicly released plans to vaccinate teachers against COVID-19, although Gov. Janet Mills said last week that the state’s teachers are “highly valued.”

Gabriel LaSalle, a senior at Old Orchard Beach High School, said he wants to see teachers vaccinated as soon as possible.

“Teachers should be a pretty high priority,” LaSalle said after an in-person honors history class Monday. “Teachers are one of the most essential workers, considering how important schools are to our society.”

Tight vaccine supply is an obstacle all states are facing, and yet in 26 states, including New York, Ohio, Michigan and Virginia, and the District of Columbia teachers are eligible to at least sign up for vaccination appointments, according to a compilation of state policies updated Monday by Education Week magazine. No New England states currently have specific plans to vaccinate teachers, Education Week reported.

Maine aims to vaccinate about 330,000 people by spring, among them health care workers, senior citizens and essential workers – a large group that includes teachers. Vaccine doses are arriving in Maine at a pace of about 21,000 per week, although the Biden administration has promised to accelerate the number of doses shipped to states. So far, more than 142,000 Maine people, representing slightly more than 10 percent of the state’s population, have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The limited number of doses has led to demand far outpacing supply, with seniors becoming frustrated by the lack of appointments. Maine is currently vaccinating those 70 and older and finishing up health care workers and others in Phase 1A. Immunization for those 65 to 69 could begin in the first week of March, state officials have said.

But while the Mills administration has been clear about when seniors will be vaccinated, the governor has not yet said how front-line essential workers – which includes teachers – will be prioritized for immunization under Phase 1B. Other front-line essential workers include grocery store clerks, postal workers, transportation workers and certain manufacturing workers.

In Maine, there are about 15,000 teachers to vaccinate, a little less than half of the 33,000 total school employees, according to the Maine Department of Education.

The students and teacher in Robert Ganley’s U.S. history class at Old Orchard Beach High School keep their distance on Monday. During class, Ganley discussed how mask wearing may remain part of public health policy and custom even after the pandemic. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Kelli Deveaux, Department of Education spokeswoman, said in an email response to questions that deliberations are continuing.

“As vaccinations become more widespread, which is dependent upon an increased supply of the vaccine, (the Maine Department of Education) will continue to engage educators, school administrators, parents, public health professionals and other stakeholders,” Deveaux said.

Other states, including in California and Illinois, have reported flare-ups between teachers’ unions, state health agencies and school administrations with unions demanding teacher vaccinations before schools reopen.

But Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association, which represents teachers’ unions, said that while teachers are “at risk” of COVID-19 and should be vaccinated as soon as possible, she also recognizes the difficult choices the Mills administration faces because of the limited vaccine supply.

“We are eager to get the vaccine, but this is a very complicated task they are facing,” Leavitt said. “Those are really tough decisions they have to make.”

Old Orchard Beach High School sophomore Summer St. Louis shows history teacher Robert Ganley details she discovered about her family’s ancestry after a class Monday. Ganley said that if teachers were immunized soon, it could lead to more extracurricular activities for students in the spring and many teachers would feel more at ease in school. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

At Old Orchard Beach High School on Monday, history teacher Robert Ganley taught an advanced U.S. history class – with students wearing masks and spaced more than 6 feet apart – about the shift from an agrarian to an industrialized economy in the 19th century, and how that impacted public education.

During class discussion, the pandemic was ever-present, as Ganley talked about how mask wearing may become part of public health policy and customs even after the pandemic winds down. People may continue to wear masks on the subway, at concerts, or even on packed summer days at Old Orchard Beach.

At four days of in-person instruction per week, Old Orchard Beach is one of the few districts in the state where students are spending significant time in the classroom.

Superintendent John Suttie said that if all teachers and staff can get their second doses by around the April break – which is looking unlikely at this point – they would like to return to being in school five days a week. Suttie said the small student population at Old Orchard Beach – the high school has about 250 students – makes it easier to do more in-person learning than in larger districts.

“I would very much like to get everyone back to five days per week,” Suttie said. “Transmission rates are very low in schools.”

COVID-19 prevalence is about 30 percent less in schools than in the community at-large, according to the Maine Department of Education. Among outbreak investigations at schools, 377 positive cases have been among staff, while 930 cases were among students, according to the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

John Suttie, superintendent of Regional School Unit 23 and principal of Old Orchard Beach High School, said the school’s small enrollment makes it easier to do more in-person learning than in larger districts. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Ganley said it’s hard to say where teachers should fall on the priority list, but that if they were immunized soon, that could lead to more extracurricular activities for the students in the spring. Many teachers, especially older teachers, will feel more at ease in school being fully vaccinated, said Ganley, 41.

“It would be really nice if we could finish the school year completely vaccinated,” he said.

Students in his class said teachers should be getting vaccinated soon. Katie O’Neill, 17, a senior, said too much remote learning is “very detrimental” to students, and vaccination would help get students into the classroom.

Most schools in the state have adopted a hybrid plan in which students attend in-person two days per week.

At Portland High School and Deering High School, students in grades 10-12 attend school remotely, which is wearing thin and isolating for students, said Beth Eilers, whose son is a junior at Portland High School. Eilers said if teachers got their shots, it might make it easier to reopen Portland’s high schools.

“I don’t understand why teachers aren’t being prioritized by the state,” Eilers said. “Zoom school is just not adequate.”

Tess Nacelewicz, spokeswoman for Portland Public Schools, said staff vaccinations are a factor in decisions about bringing more high school students back for in-person learning.

In Westbrook, where students attend on a hybrid model, Superintendent Peter Lancia said the logistics of having more in-person learning are daunting.

“Logistically, as long as the Department of Education ‘reopening of school’ requirements are in place, including limiting group size and social distancing, we really could not change our current model,” Lancia said. “We have provided safe and healthy school environments with low transmission rates statewide, and that has been largely due to following the restrictions.”

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