The effort to reopen public schools in Alexandria got a shot in the arm Tuesday, when two educators were among the first to receive vaccinations at a COVID-19 vaccine distribution site in the city.
Gregory Hutchings, superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, and teacher Danielle Thorne both said the vaccine gives them hope that the school district can get back to a relatively normal schedule soon.
“I think that, you know, it’s just something that we’re so lucky that they started working here in Alexandria so quickly, but I feel a lot more comfortable [with] the idea of coming back. And I think my colleagues feel the same,” said Ms. Thorne, who teaches geometry at T.C. Williams High School. “I’m definitely eager to get back in the classroom.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northman and local officials toured the vaccine distribution center as Alexandria starts to roll out vaccinations under “Phase 1B” — which allows residents 75 years old or older and frontline essential workers, including teachers, grocery store workers and mail carriers, to receive the vaccine.
“The hope we’re seeing — the light at the end of the tunnel — is the vaccine,” Mr. Northam said.
Mr. Hutchings joked that he was afraid of needles but said he didn’t feel a thing after getting the shot. He said that ACPS will not require staff to be vaccinated and that he has been trying to answer as many questions about side effects as he can.
Citing a report in the fall that noted about half of ACPS staff were uncomfortable returning for in-person instruction, Mr. Hutchings said he hopes the vaccine will boost confidence, adding that he will continue to survey staff.
His goal is to have students start to return around Jan. 26, aiming to have all students who want to attend in-person classes back by Feb. 16. In addition to encouraging vaccinations, he is ensuring that there are enough resources to ensure social distancing and for students and staff to have personal protective equipment.
“There’s been a number of factors that we put into play over the past several months to prepare for this moment. So this vaccination is pretty much the icing on the cake,” Mr. Hutchings said.
Alexandria public schools, which serve about 15,000 students and employ about 1,400 teachers, has offered online-only instruction this academic year.
Mr. Northam said that health officials need to vaccinate as many as 50,000 people a day in order to meet the goal of having statewide vaccinations largely completed by the summer.
The Democratic governor said he has implemented a few new policies to try to speed up the process, including allowing flexibility for some health districts to move faster than others when they’re ready and bringing in new staff to organize the logistics.
“If you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it. So really encouraging [health officials] to use the doses that we have available so that by the end of each week, no doses are on the shelf. They’re in people’s arms,” he said.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, there have been 407,947 total cases and 5,477 deaths in the state. Just on Tuesday, the seven-day average reached 5,148 new cases — 4,561 of which were reported in the last 24 hours.
In Alexandria, there were 92 new cases reported in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 8,248 infections.
As of Tuesday, more than 200,000 vaccine doses have been administered in the state.
Alexandria Health Director Stephen Haering told The Washington Times that he expects the area distribution centers to vaccinate more than 3,000 people a week when they’re fully operational.
The city health department also is coordinating with local pharmacies and private physicians to assist in the roll-out, particularly for those 75 years old and older.
For the next phase, which is on an uncertain timeline, officials are looking at detention centers and those who have underlying health issues that could worsen or potentially be deadly in conjunction with COVID-19.