In a partnership between Tulsa Public Schools, the Tulsa Health Department and the Oklahoma Caring Foundation, more than 100 TPS employees received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Carver Middle School on Wednesday.
"There was relief, for sure," said TPS Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist, reached by phone on Thursday. "Gratitude. A lot of tears. I think that this has just been an extraordinarily stressful time for everyone, and certainly for those who do fall into these higher risk categories."
All employees 65 and older, as well as nurses and health assistants of all ages, are eligible to receive vaccines via the partnership. According to Gist, that encompasses about 500 staff members, 106 of whom got their shots on Wednesday.
Gist said there will be four more vaccination clinics in January. TPS staff must schedule appointments internally through the district.
"Any time we can help protect the school staff, that will help for the whole education system," said Ellen Niemitalo, THD clinical services manager. "So the Caring Foundation and the Caring Vans are the ones working with the different school districts to go ahead and schedule some of those vaccines."
Gist described the working relationship between local partners as "amazing," but hopes the state can work quickly to get even more district staff vaccinated soon.
"We need all of our team members in public education to be vaccinated as soon as possible, particularly those who are at higher risk ... such as our teachers and paraprofessionals who work with our students with special needs who aren't able to wear masks, which places them at greater risk," Gist said.
"All across the country, states have prioritized teachers as essential workers," Gist said. "So we just are continuing to advocate that Oklahoma do the same."
Gist said the vaccine is just one part of the equation in attempting to get back to in-person learning safely, something Gov. Kevin Stitt has strongly pushed for despite troublingly high levels of community transmission in Oklahoma. The state has the highest COVID-19 test positivity rate in the nation according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"No one in the state, including the governor, wants our children to be back in school in person more than our students and their families and our teachers and our team, including our Board of Education," said Gist.
"I'm not sure why the governor has such a fixation on Tulsa Public Schools. We are not the only district that has been in distance learning, and there are certainly plenty of things that the governor could do differently if he truly wanted our students back in person," Gist said.
"Pointing fingers and saying what we all want to happen is not helping it to happen," Gist said. "It's more magical thinking. Wishful thinking."