As of Jan. 11, according to a survey of 334 Asheville City Schools employees, 85% of teachers and other staff felt it was unsafe to resume in-person instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic. That opinion could change in light of a Feb. 16 decision by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners: Local education workers will soon have access to a dedicated pool of COVID-19 vaccines.
Although commissioners did not take a formal vote, they directed Buncombe County Health and Human Services to set aside 975 vaccine doses per week — half of the weekly 1,950 doses that North Carolina has been sending the county — for school employees starting Wednesday, Feb. 24. The remaining doses will be allocated to the county’s existing waitlist, currently open only to health care workers and adults age 65 and older, which stood at 51,979 individuals as of Feb. 18.
“In terms of equity, I like this compromise. It feels like a ‘Yes and,’” said Commissioner Amanda Edwards, whose husband, Derek Edwards, is the principal of Asheville High School. “We talk about summer loss with our kids; we’re now talking about yearlong loss of education, yearlong plus.”
The move came a day after the Asheville City Board of Education unanimously voted to bring students back to the classroom over the next month. According to the plan presented during a Feb. 15 school board meeting, preschool students will return first, on Monday, Feb. 22. K-12 students would then return in phases from Monday, March 8, through Thursday, April 1.
That plan would put many teachers and support staff back in the classroom before they had been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Stacie Saunders, the county’s public health director, estimated that it could take up to six weeks for all school employees who wanted immunization to receive their first dose.
The second dose in the two-shot series would then be administered roughly 28 days after the first dose. A Buncombe County webpage regarding the process notes that the body typically requires a few weeks to build up a strong immune response on receiving the second dose.
Saunders said Buncombe health staff members were in early conversations with education leaders about how vaccinations would be prioritized among school staff. As of June 2020, ACS employed 718 people, while Buncombe County Schools employed 2,904; all staff throughout the county’s preschools would also be eligible.
Prior to the Asheville school board’s vote, Chair Shaunda Sandford said she and her colleagues may revisit the reopening plan on Monday, March 1, pending new surveys of families and staff. However, the local system’s deliberations could be rendered moot by a proposed state law that would require an in-person option for all students within 15 days of passage.
That bill, S.B. 37, was sent to Gov. Roy Cooper on Feb. 17 after passing the House and Senate with the support of every Republican lawmaker and a handful of Democrats. Cooper, a Democrat, has said the proposed legislation does not adhere to state health guidance or allow for flexibility in the case of emergency.
Updated at 11:00 a.m. on Feb. 18 to include new information on the status of S.B. 37 and the Buncombe County vaccine waitlist.