Princeton school district wants vaccines for teachers, staff

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Princeton Public Schools officials did not mince words as they called on Gov. Phil Murphy to move classroom teachers higher up on the list of New Jersey residents who are eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

In a Jan. 28 letter to Gov. Murphy, Interim Superintendent of Schools Barry Galasso urged the governor to give New Jersey educators the “highest priority” in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine so they may return to the classroom “safely and with confidence.”

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“In this district, we feel strongly that a delay in protecting teachers results in a further reliance on remote instruction, (which is) something we all hope to minimize,” Galasso wrote in an explanatory letter to parents and staff that accompanied a copy of his letter to the governor.

Students statewide were sent home to learn remotely last spring by Murphy in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. Some Princeton students have returned to the classroom for hybrid instruction, which combines remote and in-person learning, but others have opted for fully remote instruction.

In his letter to Murphy, Galasso wrote that national studies have shown that remote learning is taking its toll on students. A significant proportion of students are experiencing “intense” sadness, isolation and anxiety that is attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that those stresses hinder learning, Galasso wrote.

“In Princeton, there are indications that the mental health of all of our youngsters will continue to deteriorate as long as uncertainty, remote instruction and frequent quarantines prevail.

“I have served as a superintendent in New Jersey for more than 25 years. This is the most serious threat to education and the well-being of our children that I have seen in my career,” he wrote.

The district’s ability to go back to the classroom is directly affected by having healthy teachers and staff, whose safety and confidence “hinges on access to the vaccine,” Galasso wrote. They have not been placed on the list of those eligible to receive the vaccine at this time.

The eligibility list includes healthcare workers, residents in long-term care facilities and congregate settings, police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and persons who are at least 65 years old. It also includes persons between 16 and 64 years old who have underlying health conditions, and was recently expanded to include cigarette smokers.

“It is urgent that we vaccinate educators quickly and stabilize the classroom environment. Our teachers and staff are frontline workers, and their efforts contribute not only to the health of New Jersey’s economy, but to the future of every child in this state.

“Please ensure that our educators receive the priority they deserve in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” Galasso wrote.

The New Jersey Education Association also has embarked on a letter-writing campaign, with the goal of sending 12,800 letters to the governor. As of Feb. 1, more than 8,000 letters had been sent to Murphy.

Meanwhile, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes said the county will receive 1,500 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines every week, beginning Feb. 1. It had been receiving 800 doses. Hughes said the 1,500 doses does not include vaccines received by hospitals, pharmacies and private clinics.

As of Feb. 1, more than 22,000 Mercer County residents had been vaccinated against COVID-19. More than 61,000 Middlesex County residents and more than 32,000 Somerset County residents also have been inoculated, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.

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