‘I feel like we’re making history’

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Teachers hope vaccines bring return to normal

  • Ouray School special education teacher Evelyn Nelson brought her 6-year-old twin daughters, Estes and Everlea, to watch as she received her COVID-19 vaccine, because she wanted them to see it wasn’t painful or scary. She and several other teachers who got their first doses of the Modema vaccine Saturday said the shots are an extra line of defense against the virus to keep kids in school and return to normal sooner. Liz Teitz — Ouray County Plaindealer
    Ouray School special education teacher Evelyn Nelson brought her 6-year-old twin daughters, Estes and Everlea, to watch as she received her COVID-19 vaccine, because she wanted them to see it wasn’t painful or scary. She and several other teachers who got their first doses of the Modema vaccine Saturday said the shots are an extra line of defense against the virus to keep kids in school and return to normal sooner. Liz Teitz — Ouray County Plaindealer
  • Diane Todd, a special education paraprofessional at Ouray School, gets her COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Ben Coyle at the 4-H Center on Saturday. The county began vaccinating educators last weekend, and hopes to have enough doses for all teachers and other school employees to get their first vaccines this weekend. Liz Teitz — Ouray County Plaindealer
    Diane Todd, a special education paraprofessional at Ouray School, gets her COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Ben Coyle at the 4-H Center on Saturday. The county began vaccinating educators last weekend, and hopes to have enough doses for all teachers and other school employees to get their first vaccines this weekend. Liz Teitz — Ouray County Plaindealer
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Diane Todd seemed almost giddy as she took her seat inside the 4-H Center Saturday morning, smiling underneath the colorful neck gaiter pulled up over her nose.

“I feel like we’re making history,” she said.

Todd, a special education paraprofessional at Ouray School, was among the first educators from Ouray and Ridgway schools who received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine this weekend.

While the county didn’t receive enough vaccines last week to give all school employees their first shots, they’re hopeful everyone who wants one will be able to receive one this weekend. The county received 400 vaccines on Tuesday, instead of its usual weekly shipment of 100. The districts’ superintendents and nurses worked with Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery and Public Health Nurse Rebekah Stewart to determine who was scheduled for the first appointments Saturday, focusing on those with higher risks, more exposures, availability and other concerns. That included teachers and staff who interact with students in multiple cohorts and those who work with students who can’t wear masks.

Stewart and Ben Coyle, a nurse from Grand Junction sent by the state health department to help out, administered 55 shots Saturday.

Several teachers described the shot as one more layer of protection in their effort to continue in-person classes and a step towards returning to a more normal school experience.

Kimberly Sills, Ouray School’s guidance counselor, said getting the shot was a relief. She works with all of the school’s age groups, unlike many others who interact with only one cohort at a time, exposing her to more people throughout the day. She’s had to keep her distance, fighting her natural inclination to be close to students. “This feels like we’re getting close to being able to have more normal interactions,” she said.

“This gives us a greater chance of the kids being able to stay (in school) in person,” said Marcia Kinne, who teaches kindergarten in Ridgway. Throughout the school year, she’s worried she could get sick and infect her students, she said. “I’ve always thought, it’s not just going to affect me and my family and my life.”

“I’ll still be wearing my masks and washing my hands, but I think it’ll just give me a little extra peace of mind, knowing I’m less likely to transmit it to students and families,” she said.

“I’m a history teacher, and sometimes I feel like I’m living in a historical moment,” Ridgway Secondary teacher Ben Fibbe said. He had mixed emotions about getting vaccinated, he said: grateful, relieved and excited, but also conflicted about getting it before others who couldn’t yet. He’s hopeful that vaccine distribution will accelerate, allowing others the same sense of relief.

He plans to talk with his students about the experience, he said, as he has throughout the pandemic.

Others described getting the vaccine as surreal, and for one, “kind of anticlimactic.”

Some said they felt anxious or hesitant about the vaccine initially, but ultimately decided it was the right decision.

Buford Sanders, Ouray School’s maintenance supervisor, was skeptical of the hype he saw about the vaccine on television, but came around after reading more about it from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on his own. Seeing scientists and doctors eager to get vaccinated themselves helped sway him too, he said.

“The pendulum swings on my anxiety about the vaccine,” said Evelyn Nelson, a special education teacher in Ouray. “But I believe in the science, and I believe this is what is best”

She brought her 6-year-old twins, Estes and Everlea, to watch as she received the shot, hoping to show them it wasn’t something to be afraid of.

“See, that was nothing,” she told them as Coyle placed a Bandaid on her arm, describing it as less painful than getting her ears pierced.

She praised the protocols the district has implemented, which made her comfortable returning to work and sending her own kids back to the classroom, she said the vaccine offers one more form of protection. Some of the students she works with can’t wear masks, which gave her another reason to get vaccinated to help protect them.

The cohort model implemented in both districts is intended to minimize interactions between groups of students and adults, and has been key to keeping the schools open since September. Currently, teachers and students all have to quarantine if anyone within their cohort tests positive, but other grades and classes aren’t affected, minimizing the impact of disruptions. Vaccines will help limit those even more: once teachers are fully vaccinated, two weeks after they receive their second Moderna shot next month, they won’t have to quarantine if they are exposed.

Frequent staff testing has also been vital in remaining in-person, by helping to identify new cases and isolate their contacts quickly.

When she saw the small needle used for the injection, Todd laughed. “I’m way less scared of that than those things Tony’s been putting up our noses every week,” she said, referring to the COVID nasal swab tests administered by school nurse Tony Disser.

Unlike other vaccination days at the 4-H Center, when strangers sat mostly quietly at their individual tables, teachers at Saturday’s clinic took pictures of each other as they received their shots and made conversation to pass the time during the post-vaccination required 15-minute waiting period.

After getting her shot, Todd reassured the next group waiting for theirs. “It’s like the tiniest needle,” she said. “I could pinch you harder.”

When one teacher jokingly asked another to hold her hand during the shot, Stewart reminded them to stay in their assigned spots, telling them, “I just don’t want my vaccine clinic to turn into a superspreader (event)."

A few district employees have declined the vaccine, Ridgway Superintendent Susan Lacy said, and a few others who have tested positive recently were advised to wait longer after recovering before getting the shots. The vaccines may also bring some people back to the school: some substitute teachers who opted out this year due to safety concerns told her they’d be willing to return to the classroom if they were vaccinated and protected, Lacy said.

She wasn’t initially scheduled to get her vaccine this week, but got a call to come in at the end of the session when there was one dose left. The Moderna vaccine vials have io doses, but can sometimes be used for u shots, allowing the county to squeeze a few more out of their limited supply. Once a vial is opened, it must be used within six hours, and any leftover vaccine must be discarded.

Henry Case left work at the airport in Montrose when he got a call that an extra dose was available instead of waiting another week. In addition to his job at the airport, he works as a custodian at Ouray School, and at times, has felt the jobs put him in a dangerous situation.

He’s gotten more comfortable with the precautions in place at the school, but his concerns haven’t completely vanished.

The minute he got the call about the vaccine, he asked for permission to leave work early Saturday and rushed back from Montrose. “Getting this started is a dream come true,” he said, and a step toward rescheduling canceled trips.

“This kind of feels like, fingers crossed, the beginning of the end,” said Shawnn Row, a humanities teacher and athletic director at Ridgway Secondary School. In November, he was the first Ridgway teacher who had to quarantine because he was exposed to COVID-19 by a student who tested positive. He taught his seventh and uth grade classes virtually from home, to a mix of students also in quarantine and those still in school.

The virus “has been looming over our lives,” Kinne said. “To know that I’m vaccinated takes a little bit of extra stress off.”

Ouray County was hoping to receive 400 doses of the vaccine this week, and had plans to inoculate 150 people per day. Those doses didn’t arrive, according to county health officials. Despite this, the county plans on vaccinating 50 teachers on Saturday and providing 150 second doses of the vaccine to others today.

As of Wednesday morning, Ouray County had two more confirmed positive cases of the virus, involving a woman in her 60s and a pre-teen. This brings the county’s two-week case count to 23, and the total number of cases to 239.

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report forAmerica, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Email erin@ouraynews.com to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work.