When Alan Gross initially registered to receive the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine through a state-run system, he got an appointment for April 7.
“I was concerned. That seemed a long time off,” said Gross, a 66-year-old special education teacher at Keene High School. He was eligible to receive the vaccine under Phase 1B of New Hampshire’s vaccine rollout, which includes people 65 and over.
“... As a teacher, you’re worried about [COVID-19],” he said. “Even though we’re social distancing, even though we’re wearing masks, we’re still around a lot of people every day.”
So, Gross said, it was welcome news when New Hampshire launched Phase 2A of its vaccine rollout, making K-12 educators and child-care workers eligible for the shot starting March 12, and he was able to move his appointment up to last Thursday.
“It was very simple,” Gross said of the process to sign up for a vaccine appointment through N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which covers Keene and six nearby towns.
After informing school leaders that he would like to get a vaccine and providing some personal information, Gross was able to sign up for an appointment at the local vaccination site on Krif Road in Keene, operated by the Greater Monadnock Public Health Network. He got his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine right after school Thursday.
That process has played out for thousands of Monadnock Region educators in the last week, and so far, area superintendents and public health officials say the vaccine rollout is running smoothly for school staff.
“I think it’s going as well as can be expected in a global pandemic, with ever-evolving details and moving pieces,” said Tricia Zahn, director of Greater Monadnock Public Health Network.
Since Phase 2A opened, Zahn said the network has scheduled vaccine appointments for more than 2,300 educators and child-care workers. The goal, she said, is for all local educators who want the shot to be fully vaccinated by the end of April. That time frame includes the 14-day period after receiving the second dose before people are considered fully inoculated.
SAU 29, which employs about 1,000 people, had more than 530 staff members sign up for vaccine appointments since they opened last weekend, Superintendent Robert Malay said.
“Basically, in a one-week window, that’s absolutely phenomenal,” he said, adding that all SAU 29 staff members who want a vaccine should get their first dose by the end of the month.
Educators eligible for the vaccine through Phase 2A can register for appointments either with their schools or through the state’s Vaccine & Immunization Network Interface, or VINI, which went live Wednesday.
“The state’s website seems to be working pretty well,” Monadnock Regional School District Superintendent Lisa Witte said of VINI. “By all accounts, everybody who has gone to sign up that way has said, ‘Yeah, it’s working pretty well’.”
Administrators like Witte and Malay said they’re asking any staff members to inform them when they sign up for a vaccine appointment through VINI, so they are not taking up two slots.
“We don’t want to be counting people twice or scheduling people twice. However, we have a very collaborative region,” said Zahn, who added that schools districts and Greater Monadnock Public Health Network have been communicating well throughout the Phase 2A rollout.
Educators now eligible for the vaccine come in addition to school staff, such as nurses and people over 65, who were able to get the shot during earlier phases. Ann Diorio, director of human resources for the Hinsdale School District, is over 65, and got her first dose of the vaccine March 6, providing “a sense of relief,” she said.
Overseeing the process of getting vaccine appointments for the roughly 150 Hinsdale staff members who want one, Diorio said the rollout of the vaccine for educators gives hope that teachers, students and their families can regain a sense of normalcy sooner rather than later.
“I think, right now, people are getting COVID fatigue, and I think this is a step in the right direction to help people,” she said, “and not only the whole school community, but also the whole community at large, that we’re getting through this finally, after a year of this.”
The majority of local school districts have operated under a hybrid model this year, with students getting a mix of in-person and remote instruction.
Kimberly Rizzo Saunders, superintendent of the ConVal School District, said “the vaccination piece is huge in getting schools back to a place of more normalcy.”
The vaccine rollout — coupled with updated CDC guidance Friday that 3 feet instead of 6 feet of space between students is acceptable as long as other COVID-19 protocols like masking remain in place — means students at ConVal Regional High school could return to full in-person classes soon, Rizzo Saunders said. At a school board meeting Friday night, she said families should expect updated information on instructional models early next week.
The Monadnock Regional School Board is scheduled to vote at its April 6 meeting whether to switch from the district’s hybrid model to full in-person classes starting in early May. Witte said she thinks the early success of the vaccine rollout for school staff will help guide the board’s conversation then.
“I think that’s a huge piece of puzzle,” she said.
In SAU 29, Malay said school leaders are focused on getting all staff members vaccinated before considering when schools will fully reopen. The ultimate goal, he said, is to get back to normalcy by the beginning of next year.
In the meantime, educators like Gross, the special education teacher at Keene High, say the vaccine gives them hope that they will get to see their students safely, and more often, soon.
“I don’t know if it’s going to happen this year, but certainly it’s a big step in the right direction to coming back to full school sometime in the not-too-distant future,” he said. “... Hopefully, we’re at the tail end of this.”