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Vaccinating Florida's Teachers Against COVID-19 Not A Priority Just Yet, DeSantis Says

Courtesy: Governor's Press Office

The president of the Florida Education Association says DeSantis "turned his back on educators in Florida."

Emphasizing that his focus remains on Florida's elderly population, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday said teachers and school staff should not expect to be prioritized for vaccination against COVID-19 -- at least for now.

The governor’s comments came as a new semester kicked off in most Florida school districts, leaving many school employees wondering if they will be among the groups at the top of the state’s priority list in the early stages of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout.

“Not at this time,” DeSantis told reporters Monday, when asked if teachers will be prioritized for the shots.

Older educators and school employees in medically vulnerable populations could get vaccinated under the current rollout, DeSantis added. An executive order issued by the governor two days before Christmas made Floridians age 65 and older a priority for inoculation.

“This is based on data, and if you look at the COVID mortality, (age) 65 and up represents over 80 percent of the COVID-related mortality in our country and in our state. ... So that’s where we’ve got to focus,” DeSantis said during a press conference at an Orlando Health hospital in Seminole County on Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices lists teachers and school employees as part of roughly 30 million “front-line essential workers” who should be prioritized for vaccinations. But DeSantis has repeatedly said that his focus is on Florida’s seniors.

Weeks ago, organizations representing school staff asked DeSantis where educators would fall on his priority list. The Florida Education Association sent a letter to the governor in mid-December, just before public schools’ winter break, asking for clarity on the issue.

“It is clear from the number of educators and students who have had to isolate at home because of illness or exposure, that our schools remain a source of community spread of COVID-19,” the organization’s president, Andrew Spar, wrote to DeSantis on Dec. 16.

Responding to DeSantis’ comments Monday, Spar said the governor “turned his back on educators in Florida” by not prioritizing them as an entire group.

“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 News Service of Florida in a phone interview.

Pointing to CDC guidelines that recommend teachers and other “essential” workers be at the head of the line for vaccination, Spar called DeSantis’ prioritization of seniors a “political” decision.

“Unfortunately, we continue to watch colleagues of ours get very ill from COVID and in many cases die from COVID,” Spar said. “This is because we have a governor who is not acting in the interest of those who are on the front lines.”

Spar also said he’s heard from older school employees and retired teachers who reported that they “waited for hours” to get a vaccine or were unable to get a shot.

According to a report posted on the FEA’s website, 24 educators and family members have died of COVID-19 as of Monday. Santa Rosa County teacher Jeff Larson, a 60-year-old who died on Christmas, is the most recent school-related COVID-19 death reported by the FEA.

The union has been at odds with DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran over their handling of the coronavirus pandemic since late summer, when Corcoran ordered school districts to offer in-person instruction when classes resumed in the fall.

State health officials have reported the deaths of nine Floridians under the age of 17 since the onset of the coronavirus earlier this year. Nearly 79,000 children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the school year began, according to the FEA report.

While DeSantis has maintained that schools are not a significant source of COVID-19 spread, local education officials also are asking the governor to prioritize school staff for vaccinations.

The Florida Association of School District Superintendents sent a letter to DeSantis in December, requesting “all school district employees to be classified as essential workers with regard to COVID-19 vaccine distribution.”

“This will be increasingly important for school employees who are over the age of 65 or have underlying health conditions,” the organization's president, Pinellas County Superintendent of Schools Michael Grego, wrote to DeSantis last month.

Currently in Florida, the first doses of vaccinations from drug companies Pfizer and Moderna are being distributed to the elderly population, long-term care facilities and front-line health care workers.

Intense demand for the vaccinations, which require a second dose, has resulted in long lines, jammed phone systems and website crashes as Floridians attempt to schedule appointments for the shots.

DeSantis is relying on a yet-to-be-approved single-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson, expected to be released in the first months of the year, as part of a broader inoculation program for Florida’s work force.

But for now, DeSantis said Monday, vaccinations need to be targeted to older Floridians.

“The average person under 65 in our workforce has been in less risk than our senior population to COVID. So we're going where the risk is greatest. We're going where we can have the most impact on saving lives,” he said Monday.

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Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.