FULTON COUNTY — The expanded availability of the COVID-19 vaccination and the willingness to get the shots may be key to the full return of students and staff to school buildings across the Fulton School System.

Last week, approximately 47 percent of the district’s nearly 90,500 students opted to return to face to face learning for the second semester. This number is slightly higher than the group which opted to return to schools in October when classrooms re-opened.

District officials acknowledge opening classrooms is one hurdle, but fully staffing those classrooms is the bigger issue. Fulton Schools reservoir of substitute teachers is coming up short.

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“The sub challenge is a national one that is significantly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on schools,” said Brian Noyes, chief communication officer for Fulton Schools. “So the challenge still exists for Fulton Schools because COVID-19 remains a significant crisis.”

Teachers and staff are often part of the group that must be quarantined for COVID-19 related reasons creating a constant need for subs. There is also a reluctance of substitute teachers to accept an assignment out of health concerns.  

Noyes said the significant increase in substitute teacher pay that went into effect in December should entice more people to sign up to be subs. Daily pay rates now range from $175 to $200 — almost double the pre-pandemic rate.

“We hope [the increase] will help and encourage more subs to accept assignments, but we don’t expect it to fully enable us to overcome the significant impact caused by COVID-19,” Noyes said.

Fulton Schools has approximately 6,900 teachers in its 14,000 total work force.

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Earlier this month, Fulton Schools partnered with the Fulton County Public Health Department to offer the COVID-19 vaccination to all employees 65 and older, along with their qualifying spouses. About half the district’s 1,100 eligible employees received the vaccination, which officials deemed a success.

“[Vaccinations] are still a voluntary effort, and we consider it a success that people who wanted to get one were able to do so,” Noyes said. “We know there are a lot of differing personal opinions, but public health and the CDC are recommending it…so we wanted to offer it.”

Those who received the first vaccination will return for the second round on Feb. 6. Vaccinations will not be mandatory for staff, Noyes confirmed.

The state is currently in Phase 1A of the vaccination rollout, with only medical staff, first responders and those over 65 eligible for the COVID vaccination. The remaining education staff will be priority groups in Phase 1B, with the state Department of Public Health managing the rollout.

School Superintendent Mike Looney said he along with school leaders across the state are pushing hard to get to the next phase and allow teachers to get in line for the vaccination.

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“We are doing everything we can as a school district to advocate for our educators to be vaccinated as quickly as humanly possible,” Looney said. “We are [urging] everyone from the governor’s office all the way through elected officials for that to happen.”

The state’s largest educator advocacy group is also asking the state to speed up the availability of the vaccination to front line teaching staff. The Professional Association of Teachers (PAGE) represents the state’s 95,000 educators and is working to expedite the vaccination rollout.

“As Georgia public schools struggle to meet the challenges of serving students in face-to-face settings and to protect students, staff, and the families both groups go home to, PAGE supports vaccine prioritization of all Georgia educators,” said Craig Harper, executive director for PAGE.

State public health officials estimate Phase 1B will begin in early February.

Candy Waylock is an award winning education reporter who has covered all things education for Appen Media over the past 20 years. She is an Alpharetta resident.

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