MOUNT VERNON – Nearly 60 percent of Knox County's K-12 educational workforce has elected to receive the COVID-19 vaccine this week, according to numbers provided by local school districts and Knox Public Health.
The Ohio Department of Health announced in January that all K-12 employees who are "necessary to the operation of in-person instruction and services" would be eligible to receive the vaccine in February. By including Ohio's educational workforce in Phase 1B of the state's vaccine rollout, Gov. Mike DeWine is hoping to have each district return to in-person or hybrid learning by March 1.
Due to limited supply from the federal government, the ODH has used a staggered approach to vaccinate its 334,000 eligible educators this month. Certain school districts were picked to receive the vaccine each week, and they were typically grouped by county.
Knox County's districts were placed in the final week of the vaccination rollout, beginning Feb. 22 (DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney told the Columbus Dispatch recently that the selection process was largely random and based on calculations that would ensure regional equity).
Of the 1,141 eligible staff members in Knox County's six K-12 school districts, 671 will be receiving the vaccine this week, according to numbers provided by local superintendents and KPH.
Twenty-two staff members at St. Vincent de Paul School will also receive the vaccine, as well as 42 individuals at the Knox Educational Service Center (KPH vaccinated 114 employees of Clear Fork Valley Local Schools last week because the district is under the jurisdiction of the Knox ESC).
“Each school district surveyed its staff to see who was interested in receiving the vaccine,” KPH Deputy Health Commissioner Zach Green said in a statement last week. Green is coordinating vaccine distribution to local schools.
“The vaccine distribution for schools is geared to anyone who has routine, direct contact with students in kindergarten through 12th grade. That includes administrators and teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other support staff.”
A team of public health nurses and clerical personnel will visit the different school districts this week to administer the vaccine. Emergency medical service workers in some communities are also helping with vaccine administration.
Centerburg Local Schools will receive the vaccine Wednesday afternoon, Green said, following KPH's first-dose morning clinic at Energy Fieldhouse. East Knox Local Schools and Fredericktown Local Schools will receive their shots Thursday morning, and Danville Local Schools' employees will get vaccinated that afternoon.
Mount Vernon City Schools, the Knox County Career Center and the Knox Educational Service Center will receive the vaccine Friday afternoon, following KPH's second-dose morning clinic at Energy Fieldhouse.
All local school employees will receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Green said, which arrived at the health department Monday.
The local K-12 district with the highest vaccination rate was Centerburg. Of the district's 149 staff members, 111 (74 percent) have elected to receive the vaccine.
"I believe vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective since 1954, so I encourage staff to get vaccinated," Superintendent Mike Hebenthal said. "It is a personal decision and I respect the choice no matter which way a person decides."
Mount Vernon, the county's largest school district, recorded the second-highest vaccination rate at 64 percent. Of the district's 500 employees, 320 will be inoculated this week.
"We are grateful to have been given the opportunity to receive the vaccine," Superintendent Bill Seder said. "We have estimated that we have around a 65 percent participation rate across all classification including (Knox ESC) employees working for Mount Vernon.
"Relatively speaking, we are pleased with that percentage, as it is higher than many national averages. I believe there are two primary reasons why some choose not to participate. 1) Employees have already contracted COVID and feel they have built up some immunity. 2) There will always those who are skeptical of vaccines in general. In this case, the potential unknown long-term impact coupled with a lot of misinformation."
East Knox will see 54 percent of its staff (71 of 130 employees) receive the vaccine this week.
"I think that rate pretty much mirrors the number of staff who typically get the flu shot every year as well. What's interesting is that we have had some folks who have said, 'I'm never getting the flu shot, but I'm getting this shot.'..." Superintendent Steve Larcomb said.
"Obviously, I hope our staff would choose to get this vaccine, including myself, as we would be protected from the effects of future possible exposure."
Fredericktown nearly mirrors this rate, with 74 of its 142 staff members (52 percent) set to be inoculated.
"Staff have the choice on getting the vaccination," Superintendent Dr. Susan Hayward said. "It is a personal decision with each staff member."
And Danville, the county's smallest traditional K-12 district, will see 46 percent of its staff (50 out of 107 employees) receive the vaccine this week.
"I do not have a strong feeling (personally or professionally) one way or another about the staff being vaccinated," Superintendent Jason Snively said. "Most of the concern that I took from the staff not receiving the vaccine is that of not knowing the potential long-term side effects."
While 45 Knox County Career Center employees will receive the vaccine Friday, the district's rate is unclear, given the crossover of staff members between other local districts.
"We had more but the state regulations have continued to grow more stringent," Superintendent Kathy Greenich added. "Even though our adult education teachers are in our building, they got pulled out of the group that was allowed (to receive the vaccine); board members were allowed in first, but then got pulled out by the state."
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires a second dose to be taken four weeks after the first. Given the reported short-term physical effects of the vaccine's second dose, some local school districts are planning to use a calamity day the day after the second round is administered. Danville, for example, will likely do so on March 19, Snively said.
Mount Vernon will use Friday as a remote learning day, given the number of employees it plans to have vaccinated.
"With over 320 vaccinations it will take some considerable time to enroll, vaccinate, and monitor everyone," Seder said.
All Knox County school districts have offered in-person or hybrid learning throughout the 2020-21 school year. Mount Vernon has seen 169 reported cases among students and staff, followed by Fredericktown (52), Centerburg (39), Danville (25) and East Knox (16).
Local superintendents hope the vaccination process will provide a sense of relief and comfort to their frontline employees, during a year of stress and uncertainty.
"I am hoping it gives them a sense that they are safer than before," Hebenthal said. "There have been a lot of challenges this year but the mental stress of worrying about themselves and their family has caused more weariness than I would have anticipated."
Phase 1B of the state's vaccine rollout also includes residents age 65 and older, as well as those with severe congenital, developmental, or early-onset medical disorders. Phase 1A included frontline healthcare professionals, emergency medical personnel, and residents and staff at congregate care facilities.
The vaccination process began in Ohio on Dec. 14. As of Monday, roughly 10 percent of Knox County residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the ODH. Approximately 12.5 percent of Ohioans have been vaccinated to-date.