Maine is opening up COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to school staff and child care providers following a directive from the Biden administration that has prompted several states to realign their distribution priorities to include educators.

Gov. Janet Mills announced on Wednesday that pre-K-12 school staff and child care providers will be eligible for the vaccine regardless of age, in a departure from the state’s previously announced plans to follow an age-based approach. The news was welcomed by educators who were frustrated with the age-based plans, though the state said the decision to prioritize teachers could slow the effort to vaccinate those 60 and over if the federal vaccine supply does not increase.

School staff and licensed child care workers can now access appointments through the federal retail pharmacy program, which includes Hannaford, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies in Maine. Other vaccine clinics also will begin accepting appointments for school staff and licensed child care workers as soon as they are able, the governor’s office said in a news release.

“I share the president’s desire to vaccinate school staff and child care workers as quickly as possible, just as I want to see all Maine people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Mills said in the release. “Based on the president’s directive, we are updating our plan today to make school staff and child care workers eligible. We will continue to work day and night with our health care providers to get shots into as many arms as possible, as quickly as possible, focusing our efforts on those most at risk of dying if they contract the virus.”

More than 85 percent of COVID deaths in Maine have been among those 70 or older, and 98 percent were over 50, according to CDC statistics.

Maine’s announcement came just a few days after the state said it would prioritize vaccinations based on age. The Maine Education Association pushed back on those plans in a letter to the governor Monday, saying many educators, including young teachers with high-risk medical conditions, were angry to not be prioritized even as pressure mounts for schools to add more in-person learning.

“After months of advocacy from the MEA and the National Education Association – continued phone calls, letters and conversations about the need for a vaccine for all our educators – MEA and its pre-K-12 members are breathing a collective sigh of relief tonight,” Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt said in a statement Wednesday. The union said it was pleased pre-K-12 educators have been heard and will be prioritized, and it will continue to advocate for vaccines to be made available to those who work in higher education.

Maine’s announcement came a day after President Biden called on states to prioritize educators for vaccination and challenged them to administer at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to all educators and childcare workers by the end of the month. Several states, including Texas, Washington, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, responded with updated plans to prioritize educators. More than 30 states had already made vaccines eligible to some or all teachers as of Tuesday.

To determine eligibility, Maine will use a federal definition of school staff and licensed child care workers that covers employees at pre-primary, primary and secondary schools, Head Start and Early Head Start programs, including teachers, staff and bus drivers and those who work for or are licensed child care providers, including center-based and family care providers.

There are about 36,400 school staff and 16,000 child care providers who will become newly eligible for vaccinations under those definitions, in addition to 10,632 school staff over the age of 60 who already were eligible for vaccines under the age-based system.

Under the new federal policy, participants in the federal retail pharmacy program are directed to give access to available appointments exclusively to school staff and childcare workers moving forward. Already scheduled appointments made by people 60 and older will not be canceled.

Under the plan released last week, Maine is currently vaccinating residents 60 and older and is scheduled to open vaccinations for those 50 and older in April, those 40 and older in May and those 30 and older in June. It is estimated vaccines would open to those 29 and younger in July.

On Tuesday, however, President Biden said that vaccine production has ramped up to the point where all eligible adults will have access to vaccines by the end of May.

In its news release, the Mills administration said the rate of new cases for school staff and students over the 30-day period ending Feb. 26 was 25 per 10,000, nearly 70 percent lower than the case rate for the general population. It has also purchased 250,000 BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests that it has prioritized for schools and childcare providers to expand regular testing and is expected to announce this week information on how school staff 60 and over can access dedicated vaccine clinics.

Still, Maine was facing pressure to revise its vaccination plans before Wednesday’s announcement. In addition to the union’s request that the state revisit its plan and immediately prioritize educators, several school districts have in recent weeks sent resolutions to the governor asking for educators to be prioritized.

On Wednesday, dozens of current and former Maine County and State Teachers of the Year sent a letter to the governor highlighting the sacrifices educators have made to open schools this year and expressing disappointment with the age-based policy announced Friday.

“The local, state and national conversations are all about how schools and by default, teachers, are one of the most essential pieces of our communities,” said Alison Babb-Brott, a second-grade teacher at St. George School in Tenants Harbor, the 2020 Knox County Teacher of the Year and an organizer of the letter.

“We’ve heard over and over again that schools are the glue that holds our communities together for our students, our families and our economy. So if we are being acknowledged as such an essential service, then we need to act like an essential service and we need to take steps in the middle of a pandemic to protect the staff who make that essential service possible.”

Babb-Brott said Mills’ announcement Wednesday was a “step in the right direction” and she is hoping the state will follow through on the Biden administration’s directive that all educators receive at least their first shot by the end of the month. “I’m grateful for the acknowledgement and would continue to urge the administration to listen to the voices of educators across the state,” she said.

The push to vaccinate educators comes as schools in Maine and around the country also are weighing how to add more in-person learning for students. The U.S. CDC has said vaccines are not a prerequisite for reopening schools or bringing more people into buildings, but educators have said they will add to safety and ease the transition.

Physical distancing requirements and a lack of vaccinations for students still remain barriers to a full-time return, but some teachers say vaccinations will help mitigate staff quarantines and related staff shortages.

“We can’t loosen up on the other safety requirements, but I do think a vaccination would be a very big step forward in that process for teachers because it will increase the safety,” said Cindy Soule, a fourth-grade teacher at the Gerald E. Talbot Community School in Portland and the 2020 Maine Teacher of the Year. Soule said she has had to quarantine this school year because of exposure to the virus. “If I am vaccinated, if I am exposed, I don’t have to quarantine and disrupt the learning of my students and make that shift,” she said.

That’s especially important for students who don’t have at-home support for remote learning and for families who need to get back to normal work schedules, she said.

Ann Hanna, principal at Talbot, said vaccines also will help reduce the stress of teachers and get schools back to regular operations.

“It gives an extra layer of protection for teachers and reduces that stress that everyone feels by being vulnerable to the virus,” Hanna said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to take our masks off and all hug each other again, but it helps to bring down the stress and the worry that you are being exposed or exposing someone else to this virus.”

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