BRUNSWICK — Brunswick Superintendent Phil Potenziano has asked Gov. Janet Mills to expand vaccinations for school personnel in hopes of getting more students back into the classroom.

Potenziano argued in the Jan. 15 letter that vaccinating staff, particularly those in direct contact with students, will allow schools to boost in-person learning.

“I recognize the importance of vaccinating our frontline health care workers and older Mainers; additional emergency service personnel; and people who support infrastructure critical to Maine’s COVID-19 response,” Potenziano wrote in the letter. “I believe that our school teachers are, in fact, essential to the well-being of not just our students but to our greater society. Therefore, I am requesting on behalf of Brunswick educators who have demonstrated their continued commitment to our students that you give the highest priority to the COVID-19 vaccination of our staff.”

Potenziano said Thursday that Brunswick schools have been short on staff due to the pandemic, prompting him to write to the governor, whom he hadn’t heard back from as of Sunday.

“We’ve been walking that razor’s edge of having enough people and not having enough,” Potenziano said. “What I’ve heard repeatedly from staff is, ‘Once we have the vaccination, I’ll feel more comfortable working in-person.'”

As staff are out sick or have to quarantine, the school district is also facing a substitute shortage both for teachers and bus drivers. Potenziano said the transportation director and the bus mechanic have had to drive a bus route on many occasions.

Potenziano said he’s heard that it might be February or March before vaccinations reach teachers. Education workers are included among frontline essential workers in phase 1B of Maine’s phased vaccine distribution plan, which aims to first vaccinate older adults and adults with high-risk medical conditions.

According to Potenziano, nine students and five staff members in pre-K through grade 5 have tested positive for COVID-19. Another 13 students and three staff members have tested positive in grades 6 through 12. Brunswick School Department has about 465 employees, including bus drivers, teachers cafeteria workers and others who interact with students on a regular basis.

As of Saturday, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 36,598 cases of COVID-19 statewide; 10,563 cases in Cumberland County and 343 COVID-19 cases in Brunswick as of Jan. 17.

School employees anxiously await vaccine

Jennifer Bowdish, the school nurse at Brunswick Junior High School, said she has been working to educate other staff members about the vaccine. She said she feels there is nervous anticipation for the vaccines among teachers, who feel tremendous pressure from parents to get kids back to school.

As a nurse, Bowdish said she understands the state’s focus on vaccinating older Mainers, who face an increased risk of developing serious complications or dying from COVID-19.

“The other side of that is keeping parents at work and having their children in school and that’s where (school) staff comes into play,” Bowdish said. “It’s a catch 22. … How do you make those critical decisions of who gets it first? I think that just boils down to people understanding how health care works.”

Brunswick High School science teacher Andrew McCullough said he considers himself a relatively healthy middle-aged man, but he’s still afraid of getting COVID-19.

One one hand, as someone from a family of teachers, “I believe that we need to be safe and that we are interacting with students who are potentially COVID-19 positive every day, and I also appreciate that with parents in the area who are over 70, they are also at risk,” McCullough said.

Brunswick High School students are currently in school once a week for in-person learning, but teachers interact with students in-person three days a week. Due to the substitute shortage, as students and teachers continue to be put in quarantine, “it becomes all the more pressing that we don’t have the coverage that we need and that’s just kind of the reality,” McCullough said.

Though he believes he and his colleagues should be vaccinated as soon as possible, McCullough said he appreciates the tough choices state officials are making about who to vaccinate first.

His colleague, Brunswick High School math teacher Jacob Goldstone, echoed the sentiment.

“I guess my frustration is just with the reality of the difficulty of this,” Goldstone said. “Obviously I wish the federal government had taken a more active role in this earlier and had set us up for success in March. I see the way this is playing out locally is being done with the best possible intentions.”

Maine forced to prioritize limited vaccine

In an email to The Times Record, Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Friday that the state had to prioritize the limited and inconsistent supply of vaccine. Last week  Maine got 17,575 doses — 975 fewer than the previous week.

Crete said the state will focus on vaccinating those older than 70, then 65-69 years old; and then Maine people with high-risk medical conditions.

In Maine, more than 85% of COVID-related deaths have been people 70 or older, according to Crete, and 10% of that age group who contract the virus die compared to 1% of people in their 60s and less than 1% of all other ages. The COVID-19 hospitalization rate in Maine for people age 70 and older is 17%, “which is markedly higher than the 6% for people ages 60-69; the 3% for people ages 40 to 59, and the less than 1% for younger people.”

“The governor’s goal is to save lives,” Crete said. “This means focusing on the most vulnerable members of our community — those who are more likely to suffer and die if they do not get vaccinated.”

Crete said frontline workers remain a priority, but determining when and how they will be vaccinated depends on the supply of the vaccine.

“The governor does not subscribe to the notion that some people in Maine are more ‘essential’ than others; everyone in Maine is essential in her view,” Crete said. “The governor is the daughter of a longtime public school teacher, and she is deeply appreciative of the heroic work Maine’s teachers and school staff have done to educate our students while keeping themselves and their students safe throughout this pandemic.


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