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New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announces new eligibilities for the vaccine in March.

NorthJersey.com

New Jersey educators welcomed the news on Monday that they will finally be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines starting March 15, a move that Gov. Phil Murphy said should put all schools on track for reopening by the fall. 

Educators and unions have clamored for the vaccines, with some saying they were reluctant to return to classrooms until they get them. Currently, about one-third of public school students are learning remotely, Murphy said Monday.

“As we continue to work toward seeing all of our students back in their schools, ensuring full access to vaccines for their educators is a big step to take,” the Democrat said. “It’s not a magic wand, it’s not the only step, but it is a big one.”

“We are fully expecting that we’re back in business in person in September again, safely and responsibly,” Murphy said during an afternoon news conference. 

But questions remain about how quickly New Jersey can get educators vaccines that are already in high demand but short supply. Health officials and education leaders warn that vaccines will not mean a sudden return to normal in schools and that people should not ease up on protective measures.

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Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association, which has been rallying for vaccines for school staff, said the announcement was “an important step toward New Jersey’s emergence from this pandemic.”

“With nearly 1.4 million students and over 200,000 adults, one out of every six New Jersey residents is connected directly to our public schools,” Blistan said in a statement. “The sooner educators are vaccinated, the sooner our entire state is safer.”

She called on the state to expand eligibility to educators and staff at colleges and universities, who were not included in Monday’s announcement.

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Currently, there are about 146,000 certified staff, including teachers, principals, librarians and superintendents, in New Jersey schools, as well as 80,000 non-certified staff, according to the Department of Education.

With millions of New Jerseyans now eligible, teachers and support staff are expected to face difficulties securing an appointment. The process of developing protection, meanwhile, takes time. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines now in use require two doses about a month apart and take weeks for the body to build up immunity. 

State officials, however, say New Jersey’s allotment is expected to expand after the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine over the weekend. The state expects to get 73,600 doses of the one-shot vaccines next week, Murphy said.

As of Monday, 533 districts were open for hybrid instruction, 110 for full in-person instruction and 27 with a mix, the governor said.

Another 142 remained fully remote, including some of the state’s largest districts, like Paterson, Newark, Jersey City and Elizabeth, which have set reopening target dates for April.

In all, roughly 74,000 of the state’s students are learning full-time in classrooms, more than 760,000 are served on a hybrid schedule and 447,000 students remain all-remote.

Reluctant to return

In some districts, teachers and staff have been reluctant to return until they can get immunized.

In Montclair, which is still all-remote, the teachers’ union, the Montclair Education Association, has refused to return to classrooms until all members are vaccinated. A judge last month denied the district’s request to order teachers back, although the case is still open. 

In January, Middlesex Borough school administrators decided to postpone the return due to teachers’ concerns that they should be vaccinated before going back, NJ.com reported.

In Jersey City, where schools are supposed to reopen in April, the union also called for immunizations before returning to in-person learning.

But vaccination will not mean a quick return to normal school operations, health experts say. Dr. Lawrence Kleinman, a professor of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said in a January interview that inoculations are a “beginning step.”

Unvaccinated young people can continue to spread the virus to their families and communities, he noted. While children are less likely to fall very ill from the virus, they are still susceptible, Kleinman said.

People also may be able to catch and pass on the virus after they are vaccinated, even if they themselves don’t appear ill, he said.

Until vaccination is universal and community spread is stopped, students and their teachers can expect to keep protective measures like masks, social distancing and frequent handwashing in place, Kleinman said. 

In addition to school staff, child care and transportation workers will become eligible for vaccines March 15, but employees in higher education are not yet in the mix.

The logistics of how and when the next groups of workers will be vaccinated still must be determined. Murphy mentioned options including dedicated vaccination sites for certain groups and expedited access so they would not have to use the state’s logjammed call center.

“We would fully expect, assuming things go in the direction we are going, that we will be in-person for school in September,” Murphy said at his news conference. “I will be very surprised and disappointed if we are not.”

Hannan Adely is a diversity and education reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: adely@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @adelyreporter 

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