CMS board member, educators discuss Covid-19 vaccine and making ‘Safer Schools Now’

School Board Vice Chair advises the district’s educators to take the Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes more widely available.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ educators will be next in line to receive the Covid-19 vaccine after health care workers and long-term care staff and residents. 

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) published the state’s vaccination rollout plan, which prioritizes groups of individuals in five phases (1a, 1b, 2, 3 and 4) for the Covid-19 vaccine. Before biopharmaceutical company Pfizer’s vaccine became available in North Carolina on Monday, CMS’ Board of Education previously requested that all K-12 staff who work directly with students — or in a school — be high on the priority list.

According to the vaccination rollout plan, teachers are categorized as “essential frontline workers” along with police officers and food-processing workers. The group is included in Phase 1b of the plan, in addition to: 

  • Adults with two or more chronic conditions that put them at risk of severe illness as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes conditions like cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease and Type 2 diabetes, among others.
  • Adults at high risk of exposure including essential frontline workers, health care workers, and those living in prisons, homeless shelters, migrant and fishery housing with two or more chronic conditions.
  • Those working in prisons, jails and homeless shelters (no chronic conditions requirement).

“I’m just really glad that our teachers and other school staff persons that interact with our students on the daily basis were on the list to get it,” CMS Board of Education Vice Chairperson Thelma Byers-Bailey told QCity Metro on Dec. 7. “We tried to get them as high as we could in the hierarchy of who gets it (the Covid-19 vaccine) next.”

The board’s request stemmed from teachers and staff expressing safety concerns about entering their schools, Byers-Bailey explained. She called children “natural huggers and germ factories,” which is why she said CMS staff should get the Covid-19 vaccine as soon as possible. 

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With a majority of K-12 in full remote learning because of increased Covid-19 cases across the state, the focus now turns to Jan. 19 — the date when most CMS students will return to classrooms for in-person learning. Byers-Bailey said if staff can get the vaccine before January, then that’s one more level of protection against the virus that’s killed nearly 6,000 people in North Carolina as of Tuesday, according to the NCDHHS.

Biopharmaceutical company Pfizer delivered its Covid-19 vaccine to Atrium Health hospitals on Dec. 14, 2020. Atrium was the first health system in North Carolina to administer the vaccine. Photo courtesy of Atrium Health

Not without skeptics

But what about CMS educators like Amanda Thompson and Merisha Leak? Both told QCity Metro that they won’t be taking the vaccine because they don’t trust it. 

Thompson said she wouldn’t allow her child to get vaccinated either. At the earliest, K-12 students in North Carolina can receive the Covid-19 vaccine in Phase 3 of the rollout plan when there is an approved vaccine for children.

[Related: Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is in NC. Atrium Health has the first batch]

Although Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is FDA-approved and recommended by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health, Leak said she didn’t like how quickly it was developed. 

Thompson said the vaccine reminds her of the Tuskegee Experiment, the study that infected 600 African American men from Tuskegee University with syphilis from 1932 to 1972. Men in the study, conducted by the United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were told that they were receiving free health care from the federal government.

CMS educator Amanda Thompson. Photo courtesy of Amanda Thompson
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The two educators also expressed concerns about whether the vaccine would be optional. Byers-Bailey said CMS can’t force anyone to get vaccinated, but she advises that educators and staff take the vaccine when it becomes available to them. 

Even when the vaccine becomes more widely available, will Black people take it?

According to a November survey conducted by Pew Research, fewer than half of the Black adult respondents (42%) said they intended to get the Covid-19 vaccine. In comparison, 63% of Hispanic and 61% of White adults intended to get vaccinated once doses become more readily available to the public.

Dr. Charlene Green, president of the Old North State Medical Society (ONSMS), told QCity Metro that getting the Covid-19 vaccine will be one of the most pivotal decisions in many peoples’ lifetime because it could be a matter of life or death. 

ONSMS, one of the nation’s oldest medical societies for African American physicians, advocates for Black, Hispanic and Native American communities that have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 in terms of higher infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths. 

Black and Hispanic people are 2.8 times more likely to die from Covid-19 compared to White and non-Hispanic persons, according to the CDC. Native Americans and Hispanics are both four times more likely to be hospitalized from Covid-19. 

Green said she and ONSMS want to focus on educating vulnerable communities on the science and data behind the Covid-19 vaccine to help determine if it’s the best option for their families. 

The organization acknowledges the history of inequitable and unjust health care as it relates to the Black and Brown population, Green said, but the severity and timelessness of the pandemic have made the minority-focused medical society want to find better solutions to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

Tara McGee Walker, a registered nurse and clinical informatics coordinator at Atrium Health, was one of the first people in North Carolina to get vaccinated Monday. She said the injection “wasn’t bad at all” but advises people to research what the vaccination means and understand its side effects. 

Tara McGee Walker, a registered nurse and clinical informatics coordinator at Atrium Health, says she “wasn’t scared at all” to receive her first dose of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020. Image via Atrium Health

Atrium’s Chief Medical Officer Gary Little said at a virtual press briefing Monday that side effects of the vaccine can include a mild headache, muscle aches and a low-grade fever.  

‘Safer Schools Now’ 

Thompson and Leak both agreed that CMS should be focusing on “things they can control,” like fixing schools’ process on contact tracing, improving the metrics dashboard, improving air circulation and ventilation in schools, figuring out ways to improve bus driver safety and supporting educators’ mental health. 

Thompson is encouraging educators and parents to sign a petition called “Safer Schools Now,” which advocates for the measures mentioned above. The petition currently has over 1,100 signatures. 

In response, specifically to contact tracing, Byers-Bailey said CMS conducts contact tracing within the schools to determine if students and staff are infecting each other inside the buildings. 

“We’ve been very diligent about making sure that if we have a hot spot, we let everybody know because that’s when we would shut the school down,” she said. 

As of Dec. 11, the district’s color-coded readiness dashboard points to substantial community spread (red), indicating that there were more than 100 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 persons or 10% had tested positive on a seven-day average. 

Two days later, Mecklenburg County health officials reported that the county’s seven-day test positivity average was 11.6% and there was an average of 621 laboratory-confirmed infections per day. 

Byers-Bailey said, to her knowledge, there weren’t any hot spots or clusters in the schools before the board voted to move K-12 students to full remote learning. 

“It’s a relief that we didn’t seem to be creating a spread among the students and staff within the buildings,” she said.

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