After this story published, the Teton County Health Department announced Wednesday that its February allotment of vaccine doses from the state had been increased. That will allow the department to administer first doses to all teachers and school support staff who want them by the end of the month. — Ed.

Teaching during a pandemic just isn’t the same.

Educators are used to connecting with kids in ways that go beyond the curriculum. Especially in elementary school, little humans need help with coats and mittens on a cold day; they need a pat on the back when they help a friend; they need a hug when they’re having a bad morning.

Those actions develop relationships in the classroom, but pandemic precautions have limited the ways teachers can build rapport.

“That’s the biggest reward of what we do, the hugs, the high fives ... and we can’t do it,” said Tom Ralston, a Jackson Elementary School music teacher.

Adding to the difficulty, Ralston said, is the extra burden of work teachers have taken on. The district’s Smart Start plan for mitigating the coronavirus includes podding of elementary school kids, which keeps students in strict groups.

To make that happen, teachers supervise more recess and lunch periods, meaning they don’t have as much time for planning or even to catch their breath.

“The thing that you don’t see is what teachers are doing during their planning before school, after school, you know, during their lunch,” Ralston said. “We cover extra duties. We used to have just two lunch periods and recesses to supervise, but with pods, now we have six.”

Teachers have another consideration: contracting COVID-19. No matter their grade level, most are in the classroom with kids at least four days a week, interacting with dozens of students (sometimes hundreds at the upper grades). Teachers have wide exposure circles; the movements of all students and families have the potential to bring the virus into schools.

Most research suggests schools are not major sources of viral spread if social distancing and mask precautions can be maintained, though experts emphasize that places with high rates of community spread require more stringent precautions, like more testing, to keep schools safe.

Cases have been found locally in students and teachers. In Wyoming, nearly one-fifth of cases have been in school-age or younger children.

The constant potential for exposure is an added layer of anxiety for in-person educators, three district staff who wished to remain anonymous told the News&Guide.

Reducing the potential for teachers to contract COVID-19 is part of the reason educators were included in the Wyoming Department of Health’s 1b priority groups. Teton County teachers are slated to receive their first shots sometime in March, according to Teton County Health Department.

That hasn’t kept teachers — and other Teton County residents — from attempting to find neighboring areas that will vaccinate them sooner. Janna Lee, nurse manager at the Sublette County Health Department, said she and her staff vaccinated a pair of Teton County residents last week.

Similarly, Keith Gnagey, CEO of Teton Valley Health in Driggs, Idaho, said Monday that his hospital isn’t “differentiating between Idaho and other residents.” Since some Idahoans are “snowbirds” and have second homes in other states, they might be vaccinated elsewhere, so he feels his hospital has a duty to vaccinate people who sign up and fit the priority groups. Tight supply does make him “very concerned we don’t have enough vaccines” for everyone in his county who wants one.

Because some teachers live in Teton Valley, Idaho, they have reached out to Teton Valley Health or gone as far afield as Idaho Falls. Some have received vaccines while others have been turned away. Though there is no rule mandating people be vaccinated where they work or live, federal allotments are based on population, so the Wyoming Department of Health has asked people to wait and be vaccinated “within their own counties.”

Stories abound from around the country of wealthy, well-connected people “vaccine shopping,” as health officials call it, sometimes when they don’t fit priority groups. Teachers, on the other hand, have a strong argument that their level of exposure and importance makes their vaccination a societal priority.

Superintendent Gillian Chapman confirmed that some of her staff had been vaccinated in other counties or states, and she said she sees nothing wrong with it.

“It’s not like our staff did things they shouldn’t have done. They found a way to be vaccinated, and, you know, that’s great,” Chapman said Monday. “If that local health department determined that they could vaccinate those individuals, I think that’s their call.”

Though the number is likely low, some Teton County teachers have been able to “vaccine shop” because of the uneven rollout across Wyoming. The state Health Department released updated 1b priorities Feb. 1, saying residents 70 and older should be vaccinated before teachers, while those between the ages of 65 and 69 could be inoculated concurrently.

Differences between Wyoming’s counties have still created a situation in which some places have already moved on to teachers, while others, including Teton County, have not. Wyoming’s original plan anticipated that might be the case.

“Due to vaccine logistics and the desire to vaccinate Phase 1a and 1b populations as quickly as possible, we advise planning for and beginning vaccination of multiple groups simultaneously,” a Dec. 30 advisory document reads.

That stipulation allowed some discretion, which is helpful in a place like Niobrara County, where the population is so low that each priority group might only be a few dozen people.

“I was able to go ahead and do the teachers, and I pretty much got through all of 1b until [the state] added the 65 and up,” said Melanie Pearce, regional supervisor of public health nursing for Niobrara County.

Pearce knows her county’s situation is not representative of the rest of Wyoming. Across the state, uptake rates, proportions of essential workers and other factors have affected when teachers can be vaccinated. In Natrona County, teachers have been eligible for about two weeks, public information officer Hailey Bloom said.

Just last week, Sublette County started vaccinating its teachers alongside some older, more vulnerable populations. Anecdotally, the public health officials reached for this story said their counties had lower uptake rates among the priority groups than Teton County, which allowed them to move through 1b faster.

Lee, the Sublette County nurse manager, also said county-specific industries have an effect. For instance, her area doesn’t have congregate living facilities, while Teton County vaccinated residents and staff at Legacy Lodge and the St. John’s Health Living Center.

In Lincoln County, another neighboring area that has received calls from Teton County residents looking for the vaccine, the health department is working only on age-based demographics, while Star Valley Health is vaccinating essential workers.

“It really depends on what your county looks like,” said Patrice Brown with the Lincoln County Health Department. “Some people are going to be stalled in a couple of groups, and some people will just move right through them quickly.”

Though Teton County school district staff have been anxious about getting the vaccine, Chapman said, some of that has been alleviated just by knowing that the shots are coming in about a month.

A decrease in staff absences due to COVID-19 after a spike in late January also helped, especially because when other teachers are out sick or in quarantine, “all of a sudden you’re doing two jobs at a time, and you don’t know what that other job is until you arrive at school and look at the absentee board, whether it is serving breakfast, shoveling the walkway or covering a classroom,” Ralston said.

Chapman and Ralston stressed one thing: Most teachers are happy to be in the classroom. Even so, they’ll be happier to know they are broadly protected against severe cases of COVID-19.

When about 350 district staff were surveyed in December, 89% said they would take the vaccine, and just 4% said they wouldn’t, with the rest being undecided.

Despite the emotional relief offered by vaccines, little will change after teachers are fully vaccinated in April after their second doses, Chapman said. Kids won’t be inoculated this school year, so all pandemic precautions will need to remain in place.

Vaccination also hasn’t been proved to keep people from transmitting the virus, so teachers will still have to worry about potentially bringing it home.

“Will we be able to quit wearing masks? No. Will we relax any of our protocols? Probably not,” Chapman said. “Until we can get our kids vaccinated, or until the Health Department tells us it’s safe, or safe enough to move forward, we’re still going to have protocols in place.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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