At the Pima County superintendent’s office, the windows that once revealed ordinary office space are now adorned with photos of educators bearing cheerful eyes behind their masks and holding up paper cards showing one of the first signs of hope in a year-long pandemic.
Matt Stamp, the communications director for the superintendent’s office, came up with the idea for teachers to submit photos showing their COVID-19 vaccination cards and to publicly display them on the office windows.
“There were a lot of eager teachers ready to get vaccinated, and so we were seeing a lot of frustration. Then across my own personal timelines on social media, I was starting to see educator friends post their vaccine photos, and just the smiles on their faces,” Stamp said. “You could just tell how proud they were, and something just flipped in my brain and said, this is important. We need to change the narrative here of the frustration, change it from frustration to a message of hope, which is really what this is.”
While Pima County is receiving a limited vaccine supply that falls short of the demand for them, the county superintendent’s office wanted to celebrate the thousands of educators who have taken the first step in quelling the transmission of the virus that’s changed every facet of their work lives.
Nearly 9,000 K-12 educators have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen. In the county, about 25,000 educators currently qualify to receive their shot in the county's priority 1B group of vaccine rollout, said Pima County Superintendent Dustin Williams.
While educators have successfully registered for vaccines across Pima County’s five PODs, or points of distribution, the county encourages them to go to the University of Arizona or the Tucson Convention Center.
According to the University of Arizona, which only provides vaccines to educators, the POD has administered 9,866 doses as of Monday.
While some local school districts debate whether to return to classrooms and others have already done so, receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is giving many educators hope that instruction will return to normal sooner rather than later.
“We know that schools, when they have face-to-face contact with students, that's the best type of strategy for their cognitive ability, and also their social-emotional,” Williams said. “If we want schools to open in any type of method, whether it be a remote, hybrid or in person, we really want to encourage mitigation strategies. This is just another layer of making sure that the staff at these schools are going to be protected from this deadly virus.”
Ben Collinsworth, a first-grade teacher for Flowing Wells’ digital campus, received his first COVID-19 shot on Jan. 18 at Banner South’s Kino Stadium site. He said it took less time than a standard admissions test would.
“It really hit me when I was waiting in that line of cars that this is the first thing after a whole year that we were doing that was actually part of a solution,” Collinsworth said. “Since March, it's all been about what can we do to prevent the spread? As teachers, as educators, what can we do to teach through the pandemic, or make sure that kids are getting what they need? Here I was sitting in the car, about to finally do something that's like, okay, we're gonna end it. Together, we are going to end it.”
Frannie Neal, a counselor at Tucson Unified School District’s Grijalva Elementary School, received her vaccine on Jan. 19 at Tucson Medical Center.
“It was the best day of the year. It just felt like such a relief. You know, after having to quarantine for so long, it's been really quite difficult,” Neal said. “So it was such a joy to be able to register. It was such a relief that day just knowing that this end is hopefully in sight, and we can go back to school soon safely.”
After hearing stories like Collinsworth’s and Neal’s, Stamp decided to publicly display the photos taken by proud educators. He made a Facebook post requesting educators’ vaccine pictures.
Educators: Share your vaccine photos with us! We are looking for any and all educator vaccination pictures. We want to...Posted by Pima County School Superintendent's Office on Tuesday, January 19, 2021
“The teachers and the educators who saw it and shared their picture were so ecstatic to share, they just had this sense of pride and this sense of hope that they got their vaccine and you could see it in their faces, just how happy they were to get it,” Stamp said. “I really wanted that story to be told, I wanted to just show that this is happening, this is real, and we're gonna get back into the classroom sooner than later.”
But the step in a return to pre-pandemic classroom settings comes after a year of changes that drastically impacted educators’ careers.
“There are so many components of a school, and school counseling is such a crucial one, especially right now. It's been quite difficult trying to reach certain students or families,” Neal said. “Attendance has been hard, some technology issues or the internet's down or device issues—just a myriad of issues. But I know, especially at our school, everybody's working harder than ever to solve those issues.”
The pandemic is affecting students’ school lives, too.
“I think a lot of students are just feeling disengaged,” Neal said. “I know teachers are working—and counselors, of course—harder than ever to get them engaged and to do movement activities and different things to kind of get them involved.”
At a governing board meeting Tuesday night, TUSD will discuss the results of a parent survey assessing whether to return to a hybrid learning model or remain remote.
“I hope that we can return safely as soon as it's possible to return safely. I think that looks like having as many people as possible vaccinated. Continuing the mask-wearing, continuing all of our mitigation strategies that we've been doing,” Neal said. “I'm very cautious about returning to school unless it is safe.”
Neal and Collinsworth have appointments scheduled in the next two weeks to receive the second vaccine dose needed to be fully immunized.
Grateful for the opportunity to receive the vaccine, Collinsworth encourages persistence for those still trying to schedule an appointment.
“I'm excited for everybody to get a chance to get the vaccine. I know that the rollout has been difficult, finding an appointment has been difficult for a lot of people,” he said. “My message is, keep at it, because every shot is one step closer.”