Johnston County teachers: No school until they’re vaccinated


Mary Heilig, a social worker with Johnston County Health Department, checks to make sure individuals are 75 or older during a drive-thru COVID vaccination clinic at West Johnston High School in Benson, N.C., Tuesday, January 12, 2021. The Johnston County Health Department clinic was for anyone 75 and older and was offered first come, first served for the first 500 who arrived.

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The Johnston County Association of Educators is asking the school system not to resume in-person instruction until school employees are vaccinated for COVID-19.

Many of Johnston County’s 36,000 students are scheduled to resume in-person instruction on Feb. 1, following a switch to online-only cases that began Dec. 14 due to concerns about a post-Christmas COVID spike.

But at an outdoor news conference Wednesday in Smithfield, some teachers and parents said it would be reckless to bring students back now.

Speakers said 12 North Carolina teachers have died from COVID-19, including John Krol, a 40-year-old teacher at Swift Creek Middle School in Clayton.

“The average age of these 12 educators who died was only 50,” said Martha Andre, a parent of two Johnston County students. “We have a duty and an obligation to furnish teachers with a safe workplace.”

School board chairman Todd Sutton did not return email and voicemail messages Wednesday from The News & Observer requesting comment. Sutton had cast the tie-breaker in a 4-3 vote last week for bringing students back on campus Feb. 1 and against suspending in-person instruction into March.

JCAE is in the middle of an email campaign to persuade the board to reverse its decision.

Waiting for teachers to be vaccinated

The North Carolina Association of Educators has urged schools across the state to go slow on resuming in-person instruction during the pandemic.

Lobbying by Wake NCAE helped persuade the Wake County school board to suspend in-person classes through at least mid-February. Like their counterparts in Johnston County, Wake NCAE wants to stay with online-only classes until school staff are vaccinated.

COVID vaccine supplies are still limited, so it’s unclear when school employees will get their shots. But April Lee, the president of the Johnston County Association of Educators, said she’s hopeful that new President Joe Biden’s call for 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office will improve the situation.

Citing new federal guidelines, North Carolina recently revised the vaccine priority list to put people ages 65 to 74 ahead of school employees.

On Tuesday, the Johnston County school system gave 40 vaccine doses to employees who are 65 and older. The doses came from the county Health Department.

According to the district, several more vaccine clinics will be offered in the coming months for the nearly 2,200 school employees that have expressed an interest in receiving the vaccine. The district plans to give the next group of doses to 560 employees who are age 50 to 64.

But Lee, who is also a math and social studies teacher at Four Oaks Middle School. said students will be back on campus before most school employees are vaccinated. Johnston, which is North Carolina’s seventh-largest school district, will use a mix of in-person and online classes called Plan B.

Starting Feb. 1, K-12 students will be split into two groups that each get two days a week of in-person classes. Due to the recent COVID spike, the school board opted to discontinue use of Plan A, in which elementary students were getting daily in-person classes.

A small group of Johnston students — Pre-K and special-education students in self-contained classrooms — are back receiving in-person classes.

Some Johnston students have opted to take only virtual classes this school year.

Social distancing not guaranteed

“Johnston County Public Schools will utilize the guidance from the NCDHHS Strong Schools NC Toolkit to implement the operation of schools under Plan B, including maintaining 6 feet of physical distance between student and staff when feasible,” the district said in a statement Wednesday.

“Due to the operations of school, although it remains the expectation, this may not be guaranteed at all times, such as when students enter and exit the building or other transition times during the day.”

Opponents of extending online instruction into March said some students aren’t doing well in an all-virtual environment.

Speakers on Wednesday said they sympathized with families who are struggling, saying their own children are having problems with remote learning.

“We’re making the best because we are in a pandemic and we’re doing the best we can and that’s all we can expect right now,” said Shelley Roberts, a Johnston County teacher and mother of three students.

Johnston board members wanting students back in February had cited, in part, a study by the ABC Science Collaborative that looked at 11 North Carolina school districts and said schools could safely open if strict safety measures are followed. Critics have questioned the validity of the study because it was based on data from earlier in the school year when COVID rates were much lower in the state.

A News & Observer analysis found that, as of last week, the majority of North Carolina public school students are back to only receiving online classes as districts pause in-person instruction due to rising COVID numbers.

Demands before schools reopen

At Wednesday’s press conference, speakers said it made no sense to bring students back while Johnston County is suffering through the worst days of the pandemic. The county has a 14{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} positive test rate for COVID-19, with 14,000 people having been infected.

Speakers said Johnston County schools should only reopen for face-to-face classes when:

All school employees have access to the vaccine.

Six feet of social distancing between all students is guaranteed.

Full transparency is provided on virus infection data, including exact number and school location of person-to-person infections in school buildings.

The school district does provide an online COVID-19 dashboard, but speakers said there’s not enough information provided about individual school cases.

“We want to be back in school,” Lee said. “This is our passion, this is our love. We love our students.

“But our health and safety should also be a priority, and Johnston County Schools needs to meet the three priorities that we have asked for in order for us to be able to return to face-to-face instruction safely.”

Follow more of our reporting on Coronavirus in North Carolina

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.

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