School was out for winter break, but that didn’t mean TJ Parks was off the clock.
Parks, the school superintendent in Hobbs, said his cellphone never stopped ringing as administrators from across the state wanted to inquire about one thing: the COVID-19 vaccinations Hobbs teachers and staff members received Dec. 30.
They saw photos of about 100 doses of the Pfizer vaccine distributed to Hobbs Municipal Schools employees on the district’s Facebook page and wanted to know how it happened.
They also wanted to know how their districts might be able to do the same thing.
“My phone was pretty active for a couple of days,” Parks said with a chuckle. “It was a rather interesting time.”
The answer education leaders were looking for came Friday, when the state Department of Health included teachers and staff members in its Phase 1B distribution list, which means they will be next in line for vaccines.
It was welcome news for school administrators eager to reopen schools in a traditional format as soon as possible.
“This is terrific news,” said Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools. “This puts us one step closer to being able to bring kids back to campus, which I think is the best place to be.”
Hobbs got a jump-start, but Parks said it wasn’t planned.
Nor-Lea Hospital in nearby Lovington gave the Hobbs school district its remaining doses after treating its front-line health care workers, Parks said. Because the vaccines’ shelf life is short, administrators had to figure out what to do with the hospital’s excess supply. David Shaw, CEO of Nor-Lea Hospital, called Parks to see if the district would be interested in using them for its employees.
Parks didn’t hesitate.
“In order to get our community back to some normalcy and back to where our economy can get moving again, we have to get schools going,” Parks said. “As long as schools are shut down, you have some aspects of parents who can’t leave [their homes] because of their children.”
The drumbeat for placing educators high on the priority list was growing louder as the pandemic rolled into its 10th month, especially because most school districts remain in remote learning. García said getting teachers vaccinated will help bring students back to the classroom sooner and help them recover lost learning time. The district reported in November more than 38 percent of students in grades 3-12 failed at least one class during the first nine weeks of school.
García said another trickle-down effect teacher vaccinations could have is slowing enrollment declines that most school districts have experienced. Santa Fe Public Schools saw its 40-day enrollment shrink from 12,603 in 2019-20 to 12,033, a loss of 4.5 percent. She also emphasized the social and emotional well-being of students is being compromised as they remain at home.
The concerns prompted García and National Education Association-Santa Fe President Grace Mayer to pen letters last week to the Public Education Department and the Department of Health, imploring them to consider teachers as essential workers and give them greater priority on the vaccination list.
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart called the Health Department’s decision to prioritize teachers a crucial step in a return to in-person learning. The Public Education Department did not lay out a clear timetable for when school employees can receive the vaccine but referred them to the Health Department’s vaccine registration website, cvvaccine.nmhealth.org.
“Prioritizing educators early in the vaccine distribution process shows New Mexico’s continuing commitment to the health and safety of these vital frontline workers in whose hands we entrust the future of our children,” Stewart said in a statement.
Daniel Benavidez, superintendent of Central Consolidated Schools, a district in the northwest corner of the state, said vaccinations also will provide needed economic relief because school districts are major employers in many areas. He said teachers and staff see themselves as caretakers for the students.
“We see our kids — and I mean custodians, food-service workers, teachers — in some ways more than the parents,” Benavidez said. “All I can say is this is great news for our community, our teachers and the school district.”
Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of National Education Association-New Mexico, said teachers might be the face of the vaccine discussion, but other district employees are just as essential. She said bus drivers, councilors and those who work in the cafeterias and front offices often work just as closely with students and the public.
“I know how important opening schools is,” Parr-Sanchez said. “What is important to me is that every educator and every student is coming back to a safe and equitable environment that they can thrive in.”
While Hobbs Municipal Schools’ actions sparked a debate about the importance of vaccinating teachers, Parks said the district also wanted to give an important public service message about the safety of the vaccine. He said employees’ skepticism about taking the vaccine is a microcosm of the general public’s concerns. He hopes teachers seeing their colleagues getting their first round of shots might encourage others to change their minds.
“We really try to push out to our parents and our community that we are trying to be proactive,” Parks said. “When we get our students back on campus, we will provide the safest environment we can.”
Marcos Gallegos, a physical education teacher at Santa Fe’s Capital High School, said he would be one of the first teachers in line for the vaccine, even if he has some concerns about potential side effects. He said he is willing to sacrifice his personal feelings for the good of students.
“It’s worth throwing the dice,” Gallegos said. “We need to get back to some sort of normalcy, and if it takes teachers and coaches to take it to get kids back from who knows where they’re at, we should do it.”