For close to a year, educators across the Dan River Region have longed for a return to a safe and normal classroom setting.
As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, teachers in Danville and Pittsylvania County continue to perform their jobs in person, virtually and sometimes both. Some have expressed nervousness at best and flat-out fear at worst about reporting to their classrooms during the day and what they might be bringing home with them in the evenings.
Over the last two months, however, a slight form of relief has arrived in the form of COVID-19 vaccines. Although findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown there is very little transmission of COVID-19 in schools where mitigation strategies — such as social distancing and mask wearing — are in place, the vaccine is seen by many as just one more safeguard against the virus that has infected more than half a million Virginians and killed more than 7,000 of them.
Teachers’ reasons for getting the vaccine are as varied as the subjects they specialize in, but the connecting thread among those who replied to a Register & Bee request for input can be identified as wanting safety for themselves, their families and their students.
“I volunteered to receive the vaccine as soon as PCS offered it,” wrote Karen Butler, who teaches general and special education at Victory Academy in Pittsylvania County.
Butler was not the only one. Teachers, administrators, staff and bus drivers came out in earnest during the first two months of 2021 to receive a shot in the arm of a COVID-19 vaccine.
In Pittsylvania County Schools, where staff and students have combined to have 172 positive cases since Sept. 28, 754 employees have received the vaccine.
And in Danville Public Schools, where there have been 81 combined positive cases since Nov. 9, 292 employees have received the vaccine.
‘Step in the right direction’
Martinique Williams, a teacher at G.L.H. Johnson Elementary School in Danville, was one of many respondents who mentioned their students as their motivation for receiving the vaccine.
“For me, it's important to get vaccinated to protect my family and loved ones, which would include my precious 1st grade students,” Williams wrote in an email.
Joan Hendrix’s 11th and 12th grade students at the Pittsylvania Career & Technical Center can take the necessary exams to become certified nursing assistants upon completion of her program, which includes performing newfound skills at clinical sites. But the pandemic, she wrote, “has greatly influenced how and what I teach.”
She continued: “So far this year we are unable to go to a site because of this virus and our manikins have been our only patients. It's my hope that the vaccine will make it possible for us to resume actual patient care sometime in the not so distant future.”
At Chatham Middle School, where Crystal Wimmer, 54, teaches special education, she wrote that her students sometimes have difficulty remaining socially distanced or wearing their masks properly. The vaccine, she hopes, will keep her in the classroom.
“I have a very specific skill-set, so I need to be healthy, and I need to be here for them,” she wrote.
Wimmer also said she has a son who has a suppressed immune system, so she was fearful of bringing the virus home to him, as well.
“Having the vaccination is a good step towards making sure that I can both teach my students and protect my family,” she wrote. “I realize that the vaccine does not come with a guarantee, but I feel it's a step in the right direction, and I am grateful that PCS was so supportive in helping us receive it.”
‘Rather be safe than sorry’
Hendrix said she has lost friends and one family member to the virus, making her even more eager to receive the vaccine.
In this thinking, as well, she was not alone.
Grief and the desire to protect loved ones proved to be strong motivating factors in the decision to sign up.
“It was important for me to receive the vaccine because I live with my mother who is 87 years old and has other comorbidities,” wrote Ginny Farthing, 56, who teaches environmental science and biology to juniors and seniors at Chatham High School.
April Hawkins, 44, a seventh grade math teacher at Tunstall Middle School, wrote that she chose to get vaccinated after the death of her uncle from prostate cancer in December. Multiple people in her family later tested positive for COVID-19 after they all gathered to be with him as he died. Some members of her extended family died because of the virus, and her college-aged daughter, who has suffered from many illnesses during her life, became sicker than Hawkins had ever seen.
Hawkins said she wanted to get vaccinated to protect the rest of her family, especially her parents, from experiencing a similar fate.
“I desperately want to hug them without fear of making them sick,” she wrote.
For some, receiving the vaccine did not come without a little hesitancy, however.
“Everybody has their own choice in the matter, but I know there’s not a lot of data out there with what’s going on with the vaccination yet, but again, I’d rather be safe than sorry,” Maghan Paszkiewicz, 29, said after receiving the vaccine during a clinic earlier this month at Chatham Middle School. “I think we should all take that approach to this.”
Paszkiewicz, a geometry teacher at Dan River High School, continued: “I know it’s not full protection, but I feel better off knowing that I’m in the building with kids from all over the county on a day-to-day basis.”
Terea James, a French teacher at Tunstall High School and Tunstall Middle School, wrote that she researched the vaccine’s testing standards and felt more comfortable afterward making the decision with her family to put their names on the list.
“Our collective rationale was we know that COVID can kill, we don't know everything about the vaccine, but in the short term we haven't seen anything too bad,” James, 41, wrote.
James said her parents are elderly and that her family also takes care of a special needs child.
“I'm hoping the vaccine lowers the risk I pose to my loved ones,” she wrote.
‘Living in fear daily’
Upon ultimately receiving the vaccine, some teachers expressed emotions of relief and joy, which quelled the earlier anxiousness and uncertainty regarding whether their day would come.
Also common was a feeling of appreciation toward peers who had chosen to get vaccinated as well.
“It’s so gratifying to see so many of my colleagues here to know we’re all doing everything we can to keep this virus from spreading in our community,” said Kate Wells, an English Teacher at Tunstall Middle School, after visiting the Chatham Middle School clinic. “I’m happy for them for their families being protected, for them being protected, for our students being protected, and I’m so grateful for PCS and the health department for organizing this.”
Jeff Buchanan, 51, an administrator at Victory Academy, said he believes getting vaccinated is part of being “a good citizen.”
“I think we need to do everything we can to stop the transmission of the virus in order to, hopefully, stop the virus and keep the different variants from causing new outbreaks,” he wrote in an email.
Not only does he hope more vaccinations means he can soon go back to a Washington Nationals game with his 10-year-old son, but he’s looking forward to the day his job returns to normal.
“Hopefully this vaccination push will help us get the virus under control so that we can safely bring all students back into schools,” Buchanan said.
The desire to have school days be what they once were lingers in every educator. For too long, teachers have been caught in the middle of parents and school boards—each advocating for a certain way of instruction for children. Nobody disputes the notion that in-person learning is the best way for students to learn, but teachers simply want to get to that point as safely as possible.
“I also am tired of living in fear daily,” Hawkins wrote. “Worrying about getting sick from doing what I love to do—teaching—wears on me daily.”
After leaving a vaccination clinic this month, Melissa Huemoeller, 40, an English teacher at Gretna High School, said she experienced “some apprehension” surrounding the vaccine, but she does think it’s effective and called it “the best safeguard available at this moment.”