Teachers and staff at Logan and Cache County’s school districts were able to sign up to receive their first doses of COVID-19 vaccinations this week.
“It’s a huge relief,” said Jessica Littlefield, a fourth-grade teacher at Cedar Ridge Elementary. “This was pretty exciting.”
Pandemic roller coaster
Sky View High School’s Kaye Dawn Falslev said this is hands-down the hardest year she’s ever experienced in her 34-year career.
“From the time we went back to school until about Christmas break, it was brutal,” she said. “It was absolutely brutal. And it’s only slightly better as you move through it as you get a few more things, you know, online and that sort of thing.”
Before the Christmas break, many teachers in the area received word to check emails frequently for news of when vaccination clinics would begin in Northern Utah.
The next they heard, the date had been pushed back to mid-January.
Falslev said as news throughout the country broke of delayed shipments, she wondered if it would ever get to Cache County.
After Gov. Spencer Cox’s Jan. 8 announcement that prioritized teachers and adults 70 years of age or older for vaccination clinics, school districts — in coordination with their local health departments — sent out alerts for teachers and staff to sign up.
“Just before I left the building, that email came, and I literally had my bags on me,” Falslev said. “I dropped them to the ground and put my hands on that computer, and typed as hard and fast as I could.”
Littlefield said it was like being a little kid at Christmas.
“There were a lot of us coming out to recess, and we were kind of giddy, just giggling like, ‘Did you get on there? Did you sign up? What time are you going?’” said the teacher who is high-risk, herself.
Afterward, teachers and staff talked about the aches left in the vaccines’ wake, though none of the giddiness has disappeared.
Falslev said “this isn’t the endgame yet, but it’s clearly a bright and shining light at the end of the tunnel.”
“To be able to pick yourself up and say ‘that’s the direction’ and start walking in that direction and begin the process — yeah, that’s really energizing and hopeful and comforting,” said the veteran family and consumer science teacher. “And I fully recognize it’s not the end of mask wearing; it’s not the end of hand sanitizing. I get all of that. But it is one step closer to all of us being able to protect each other.”
And that’s the goal, according to Bear River Health Department’s Josh Greer, who said in addition to the physical benefits, the hope is the inoculations can help alleviate stress.
“Because those teachers can now go back to school and feel better protected, better able to do their job,” Greer said. “And so I think this is going to be great on the physical side of slowing down this pandemic, as well as the mental and really providing that peace of mind for a lot of people.”
Limited protection, for now
Greer, the public information officer for the BRHD, said six clinics were conducted Monday and Tuesday, and about 1,862 doses were administered to teachers and staff in Box Elder and Cache County.
Falslev was the second shot given at the clinic she went to on Tuesday, and she immediately celebrated with Superintendent Steve Norton.
“I will tell you that getting that shot and going back and getting in my car,” she added, “that’s the moment when it felt like the beginning of the end.”
Though an article from the Federal Drug Administration on Jan. 4 said there is no definitive information available about protection against the novel coronavirus after an individual receives only the first dose of the vaccine, both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have shown 92-95% effectiveness after the second dose.
But as the governor’s executive order only mandated prioritization for K-12 teachers and staff, private preschool facilities were excluded from the clinics.
“Many of our students are too young to wear masks and socially distancing is not possible with the types of needs they have,” Jessica Jeppesen wrote to The Herald Journal. “Preschools have just as many if not more Covid risks than K-12 schools. It is unfair to be disregarded and not considered teachers.”
And though Falslev, like many other educators and staff who were vaccinated this week, celebrated after the shot, it didn’t alleviate all of her concerns.
“I cannot wait for my husband to get it, because my real fear is his health,” she said. “He’s older than I am. He has pre-existing conditions that I don’t have. So my greatest fear was that I would bring it home to him.”
But there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
In addition to naming teachers and school staff among the highest priority groups to be inoculated after health care workers, Gov. Cox has sanctioned the transition to Utahns 70 years of age and older starting next week — though the Bear River Health Department “lucked into some extra doses” from Logan Regional Hospital and was able to start clinics early.
Within hours of the link to register being posted on the BRHD website, the slots for vaccinations in both Box Elder and Cache county were filled, but the health department has been told to expect an additional 2,000 doses a week for the foreseeable future.
“I’m just super excited that we are getting a consistent amount of vaccine every week and that our communities are working together and we’re getting it out as fast as we’re receiving it,” said Lisa Perkins, BRHD’s immunization and flu program manager. “And I appreciate people’s patience and knowing that we’re continuing to vaccinate with all doses that we’re receiving.”
Leading the way
Though not the first group of humans to experience a pandemic, Falslev is confident “We are going to as a culture — as a scientific community, as an educational community — we are going to beat this and we are going to reclaim a new normal that hopefully makes us kinder, more thoughtful, more enlightened, more intelligent humans.”
One marked difference from previous pandemics is the technology available today — both in terms of medical treatment and prevention and interconnectedness.
“We are the first generation of humans to have technology that allows us to stay connected during a pandemic,” she said. The technology “allows us to look at each other’s faces and have conversations and be virtually in the same room maybe as each other and virtually support each other.”
Falslev said the Cache County School District’s leadership has been instrumental in both keeping school spread down and classes in-person, and students have shown true character and respect for mitigation efforts even when they don’t believe in them.
It’s the same in elementary schools, according to Littlefield.
“I don’t feel nervous being here; I feel like all the proper protocols are being followed,” she said. “The kids are awesome, like the kids never complain about their masks, so I don’t feel so nervous right here in school. It’s more, what are my students or other people in the public doing outside of school? And that’s where I’m really, really cautious.”
Though community spread is still seen in the area as the Bear River Health District is reporting test-positivity at about 27% — down from 36.6% on Sunday.
Falslev said though Sky View may not always have the smallest number of active cases, it has the smallest total number of any other high school in the area (other than the alternative or secondary charter schools).
A huge component to that could be the direction of the Bobcat’s head coach Christopher Howell. Falslev said the players on the two-time consecutive championship-winning football team were leaders for the rest of the school and helped pave the way for others in terms of mask wearing, sanitation and hygiene practices.
“And I think that makes the championship all that much more beautiful,” Falslev said. “They are lovely humans in the classroom, and that matters so much more to me than what they are on the field. But boy, it’s fun to see a fine group of humans take a championship.”