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Robin Plaziak, the art teacher at Narragansett Elementary School, talks about the color wheel with third-grade students on March 10.  Plaziak said she has not received her first dose of the vaccine yet.

Local educators say they are pleased that state officials are recognizing the importance of prioritizing school employees in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine so schools can resume a path toward operating normally again.

Teachers, administrators and staff in North Kingstown, South Kingstown and Narragansett will see immediate action, as clinics are opening this weekend for them to get their shot.

For Narragansett and South Kingstown education staff, the clinic will be held at South Road Elementary School. In North Kingstown, the clinic will be held at North Kingstown High School from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

According to state officials, municipalities will work with schools and state-licensed child care facilities to make special appointments for teachers without age limitations.

“I am very happy members of our school staff are eligible to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Peter Cummings, Narragansett Schools superintendent. “All of our staff, including our teachers, administrators, office staff, custodial, maintenance, and transportation, have worked incredibly hard to keep our students safe and progressing in their learning during the pandemic.”

Path to Some Normalcy

The vaccination is seen as key to facilitating a return to usual school routines, such as bringing more students back into classrooms and helping teachers and staff feel safe in their work environment.

Gov. Daniel McKee’s announcement of a new and aggressive plan to vaccinate education staff brought relief and a sense of optimism to beleaguered school superintendents. They have been struggling to balance in-person and virtual learning with students, teachers and staff for nearly a year.

Among the important tasks is restoring typical school routines as soon as possible. Vaccinated teachers and staff are key to moving this forward with strong momentum, they said.

Summing it up, Cummings said, “The additional layer of protection a vaccine provides will help us to do this work even more effectively and allow greater opportunity to engage in the recovery process.”

Dr. Philip Auger, North Kingstown Schools superintendent, added, “We’re happy this is happening and making everyone much more comfortable for getting everyone in and getting the kids (into school together).”

In the South Kingstown School District, Superintendent Linda Savastano pointed to a practical way vaccinated staff will help students.

“We know that if we are to sustain in-person learning for our teachers and support staff, then they need to be vaccinated as soon as possible,” she said.

At The Prout High School in South Kingstown, Principal David Estes said a fully-vaccinated staff will help set the stage for students to get a vaccine.

“Now that teachers and staff are eligible for vaccinations, we look forward to the opportunity for students of all ages to be eligible and able to safely receive vaccination over the summer and likely into the fall of 2021,” he said. “We hope that the opportunity for vaccinations of our students will limit losses of in-person opportunities for students going forward.”

Toni-Annette Silveira, Fine Arts Department head at North Kingstown High School, had a word of caution about teacher and staff vaccinations being a panacea.

“I would like to get more students back in because we have a lot of students struggling mentally and socially,” she said. “I believe returning to class with more of their peers would be a positive incentive to help get a lot of our failing students back on track.”

 However, high school students have tested positive and have spread it to friends outside of the classroom. “The teachers may be vaccinated, but the teens are not,” she added. “We have been successful in preventing spread and I don’t think we want to risk that by returning (everyone to school just yet).”

Prioritizing Educators, Staff

Gov. McKee said, “Getting our teachers, school staff, and child care workers vaccinated is one of the best things we can do right now to support students, families, schools, and our economy.”

However, his comments also come amid some criticism about educators getting priority over those with underlying health conditions who are younger than 65 years old. Those people are still not eligible.

The Governor responded, “Here in Rhode Island, we’ve heard President Biden’s directive, and his goal is our goal. Child care and in-person learning are essential services, and we should treat them that way.”

It is estimated that the educator and staff program will use about 14,000 vaccine doses that were originally designated for people in long-term care facilities, according to state officials.

Teachers, school staff, and child care workers at centers and family child care sites licensed by the Rhode Island Department of Human Services (DHS) will be vaccinated at the existing 30 city- and town-operated clinics throughout Rhode Island.

Some clinics are serving more than one community. School staff includes administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, clerical staff, custodial or maintenance staff, bus drivers and bus monitors.

Clinics will be open to teachers and staff from public, private, parochial, and independent schools. Many across the state will start vaccinating on Friday and Saturday, as will happen at the North Kingstown High School and South Road School locations.

Safer Classrooms Helping Students

One teacher who recently received his vaccine was Fritz Benz, instrumental music director at South Kingstown High School. He spoke about the value of teachers being able to safely return to the classroom where some students could still be carriers of the virus.

“One word — engagement. It has been impossible to engage some kids online,” he said. “We still have many who choose this potion and are falling through the cracks because we cannot see them, refocus them, and inspire and encourage them.”

Cummings, Narragansett’s schools superintendent, agreed.

“In-person learning is certainly more effective than distance learning, particularly for the early grades,” he said. “We have been fully in-person for grades pre-kindergarten through eight since September, and in a hybrid model for high school.”

As the spring progresses, the district will gradually offer full in-person classes to all high school students, he said.

Savastano in South Kingstown said, “We want to be able to have our students come into our school every day and see their teachers.

“The relationships that they have with their teachers are more important now than ever,” she added.

Prout High School senior Allie Bianco illustrated Savastano’s point.

“Not having the rehearsal and performance schedule of previous years, I have been feeling disconnected from the friends and connections I have made within our theater program, as well as the theater community in general,” she said. “Also, not being able to gather with other people interested in the theater — which I had previously been able to do at rehearsals — I have seen myself start to lose interest in the art in general.”

Bill Seymour is a freelance writer covering news and personality feature stories in Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. He can be reached at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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