Education Health

Atkinson Elementary fourth grade teacher Breanna Finley was in the line of cars snaking through the mass vaccination site at Broadbent Arena, moments away from receiving her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Friday was the first day the city began vaccinating teachers and other K-12 school staff against the coronavirus.

“I’m very excited,” Finley said. “I’m hoping that this is going to be the step we take to get us back into the classroom.”

Health officials said they plan to vaccinate 7,000 public and private school employees by the end of next week, including all of Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) elementary staff.

Speaking in the arena, Gov. Andy Beshear said he anticipates all K-12 staff in Kentucky who have requested a vaccine will receive their first dose by the first week of February. The second round will come a few weeks later. 

“We are on track, at the moment, to become the fastest state in this country to vaccinate our K-12 educators,” Beshear said, although he did not explain how he knew it would be the fastest.

Like several other states, Beshear’s administration chose to prioritize vaccinating teachers in the hopes of getting students back into the classroom sooner. K-12 staff, along with people over age 70, are in tier 1b, the second group to receive the vaccine after frontline healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents and staff.

Louisville’s chief public health strategist Dr. Sarah Moyer said reopening schools is “vital” to the health of the city. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of school in maintaining students’ and parents’ mental health, she said.

“It helps keep families fed, women in the workforce, and even reducing violence in our community,” she said.

JCPS plans to reopen schools once staff have received their second doses, likely in March. By then, public schools will have been closed to in-person learning for almost a year. Many private schools have remained open, with social distancing and other safety measures in place.

The Moderna vaccine school employees are getting is 92% effective starting 14 days after the first dose, so Moyer said JCPS could consider opening schools before educators receive their second dose. With both doses, the level of protection rises to 94%.

“The second shot only provides long-term protection,” Moyer said.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said he plans to make a recommendation in February to the Jefferson County Board of Education about a plan for reopening. At a recent school board meeting, he said the opening would likely come in March. The teachers and staff vaccinated Friday as part of the first group will likely get their second doses in four weeks, around late February.

Finley said she’ll feel protected enough to go back into the classroom once she’s received both doses of the vaccine. But kids can’t get the vaccine, and Finley said that makes her nervous that transmission will still happen among children, who could then take the virus home to unvaccinated family members.

“I think I’ll feel even better when everyone gets a chance to get [the vaccine],” she said.

Moyer said with more contacts, there’s always the risk of more transmission. But she’s supportive of the move to open schools.

“We’ve seen nationally and we’ve seen locally with our Catholic schools that in the classroom, as long as they’re following all the recommendations, schools are very low risk,” she said.

Children have so far been less likely to contract the disease. Moyer said most school cases in Louisville have been among adults. The vaccine should protect them from getting serious illness, and early evidence shows it may decrease transmission, Moyer said.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.