Duval School Board petitions Gov. DeSantis for priority access to vaccine for educators

Florida Times-Union | by Emily Bloch | January 25, 2021

The Duval County School Board is pushing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to give educators priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine. 

On Friday afternoon, the board sent a letter from Chairwoman Elizabeth Andersen to DeSantis acknowledging the importance of in-person schooling, while noting the challenges community spread of the virus has caused. 

“Just this month, we have tragically lost two invaluable educators and a student,” Andersen wrote. 

Currently, the COVID-19 vaccine is available to Phase 1 priority groups: frontline healthcare workers, assisted living facility residents and staff and Florida residents who are at least 65 years old.

In the letter, Andersen asks that K-12 educators and school-related personnel be included in the next priority group. 

“Our educators are trusted members of our community and provide support well beyond academic standards,” she said. “This has been a very challenging year for us all, but our educators are simply exhausted by the burdens that they carry.” 

In the past, young people — including Jacksonville teenagers — have voiced skepticism surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Andersen added that prioritizing educators would not only help make things safer, but would serve as a boost to both morale and “community confidence in the vaccine.”

Though this is the first publicized effort from Duval County Public Schools requesting educators to be prioritized, it’s not the first push within the state of Florida. 

In December, the Florida Education Association, Florida’s largest teachers union, sent a letter to DeSantis asking for pre-K-12 educators to be prioritized for vaccine distribution. 

That same week, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents also sent a letter to the governor asking for educators to be prioritized. 

The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s advisory committee listed teachers and school employees as part of the group of frontline essential workers who should be prioritized next for the vaccine. 

But when it comes to which states and U.S. territories are heeding that advice, it varies. 

As of last Friday, EdWeek reported that at least 21 states have made some or all teachers eligible to receive the vaccine. In some states, like Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, New York and more, all teachers are eligible. In others, like California and Pennsylvania, teachers are eligible as part of the first priority phase, but it varies by county. Other states are prioritizing teachers who are over age 50. 

Florida is part of a small cluster of states that have not included teachers or educators as part of a priority group. 

“Not at this time,” DeSantis told reporters in early January, when asked if teachers would be prioritized. 

Upon signing pay raises into effect, DeSantis called 2020 the “year of the teacher,” a concept leaders like Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar are scoffing at

“Once again, the governor continues to disappoint educators. He called 2020 the year of the teacher. Clearly, it wasn’t, by any measure,” Spar told The News Service of Florida. 

When pressed at a news conference in Jacksonville on Monday, DeSantis said that the elderly population was still the highest priority for vaccines. He added that school districts that currently aren’t being prioritized for vaccinations would likely receive them once a new vaccine goes into production. 

The Times-Union reached out to DeSantis’ office for comment on the school board’s letter Monday. 

“The Governor’s Office has not yet officially received this letter,” Press Secretary Cody McCloud said Monday afternoon. “Governor DeSantis is putting seniors first and has prioritized residents most vulnerable to COVID-19 since the beginning of the public health emergency.”

Andersen said the letter was mailed Friday and sent electronically on Monday. 

“Given the dedication of our educators during this very challenging year and their willingness to serve children and our communities despite risks posed by the pandemic, I hope that the Governor will prioritize school personnel for vaccination as quickly as possible,” she told the Times-Union Monday.

As things stand right now, only school employees and educators who are 65 or older have had access to the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the school district, over 300 district-employees have received the vaccine so far. 

In Duval County Public Schools, COVID-19 cases continue to climb. As of Monday, 1,241 cases impacting school populations have been reported by the district since the start of the school year. 

Still, schools remain open as part of a state executive order and push from Gov. DeSantis. 

“We will categorically not allow any local government to lock people down. We will not let any local government kick anybody out of their job,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “We will not let any local government fine individual Floridians. We will not let any local government shut down schools. And we’re not going to let any local governments do those things.”

DeSantis noted Florida schools remaining open contribute to the state’s economy, adding that it allows parents and guardians to send their children to school and go to work themselves. 

But School Board Vice-Chair Darryl Willie says if that’s the case and schools are mandated to stay open, that the state should protect the people working there. 

“One way to show that appreciation is to give [educators] the opportunity to be able to roll up their sleeve and get that vaccine if possible,” Willie told Times-Union news partners First Coast News on Saturday.

In her letter, Chairwoman Andersen closed by telling DeSantis that prioritized access to vaccines would contribute to a strong way to finish off the school year. 

“On behalf of the Duval County School Board, we thank you for your time and consideration of this request,” she wrote. “We appreciate that you are working hard to make the best decisions for Floridians based on vaccine availability as the distribution continues to move forward.”

Photo: School Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Andersen sent a letter on behalf of the school board to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking for teachers to be prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine. Bob Self/Staff Photographer

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