City officials argue that day-care workers are still a high-priority group, but with an inadequate supply of vaccines, they are forced to make tough decisions.
Public school staff and teachers are scheduled to begin receiving vaccinations on Jan. 25, and health leaders plan for day-care workers and private school staff to follow immediately after, though they have not provided a date.
“I would love for us to be recognized. I would like us to be prioritized over the teachers because we are in-person now,” said Ida Fleming, principal of Roots Activity Learning Center, which enrolls about 48 children under the age of 5. “It’s common sense. We are on the front lines.”
The vaccine rollout in D.C. is contentious as local officials struggle to figure out how to distribute a short supply of vaccines in a city where the virus has torn through neighborhoods with unequal ferocity.
Earlier this month, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that public school, day-care, grocery store and public safety workers would be grouped together in a vaccine priority group that she hoped would begin receiving vaccinations on Jan. 25, right behind health-care workers and residents who are 65 years and older.
Earlier this week, though, the city announced a plan that would split up this priority group, with police officers and traditional public and charter school staff going first. These vaccines would go to school staff scheduled to begin working in-person by early February. While most teachers — who have argued that school staff should receive two doses of the vaccine before they return to in-person teaching — have been working virtually since the start of the pandemic, many school janitors and security guards have been reporting to school buildings. These support staff employees are also part of this Jan. 25 priority group.
Bowser and her health officials have struggled to get vaccine doses to the low-income communities hit hardest by the virus and say they need far more doses than the roughly 8,000 they are allocated each week. Bowser stressed at a briefing Thursday that day-care workers are still a priority group ahead of the general public.
Ankoor Shah, D.C.’s vaccine director, said in an interview that public education is a critical function of society and that students need to return to school buildings and receive in-person instruction. The traditional public school system is scheduled to reopen Feb. 1, days after they will begin receiving the vaccine. The city has allocated 3,900 vaccines for the traditional public school system and 1,900 for the charter sector.
School staff is not required to receive a vaccine to return to school, and Shah has said that vaccines are “an additional layer” of protection and that, with the proper safety measures, schools can safely reopen without vaccines.
“The District made a purposeful decision that right after health-care workers it’s people who work in school settings,” Shah said. “We have to make hard decisions with a limited supply.”
Led by Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), four of the District’s 13 council members wrote a letter Wednesday to LaQuandra S. Nesbitt, the city’s top health official, calling on her to vaccinate day-care workers alongside school staff.
“An estimated 7,000 child care providers and staff serve District families, most of them women of color without union protections,” the letter reads. “Their service has been essential to our families and youngest residents: to provide a safe and educational space for young children amidst a global pandemic.”
Day-care providers, workers and their families circulated a petition Thursday calling on the mayor to reconsider her decision to place school staff ahead of day-care employees in the vaccine line. More than 1,700 people signed it as of Friday morning.
More than 300 of the city’s roughly 450 day cares are open and operating. The city called on day cares, which are private businesses, to follow health guidelines but never forced them to shut down. A few never closed during the pandemic.
Day cares have long operated on slim margins, and the pandemic has thrown them into financial peril. When day cares closed, many workers did not qualify for unemployment benefits because they are undocumented, pressuring many workers to return before they were comfortable, day-care leaders said.
And because of strict health regulations, many are operating far under capacity to follow social distancing rules, dwindling the small profits they were making before the pandemic.
Some day cares received Paycheck Protection Program loans and the city has attempted to provide some small relief to day cares — including $5 million to be split among them in September — but the industry said it hasn’t been enough.
Last year, D.C. spent $115 million on child-care subsidies for more than 8,000 children. About half of the city’s day cares enroll children who receive subsidies, which means the rest have relied on the tuition fees or donations of paying parents during the pandemic. The District paid these subsidies through much of the pandemic even if facilities were closed, but stopped paying them in November for students who were not enrolled in a day care — a move that pushed more child care facilities to reopen.
La Shada Ham-Campbell, owner of Petit Scholars and a former D.C. Public Schools principal, said that most of her 25 staff members across three campuses have contracted the virus. Some contracted it at the day care and others elsewhere. She said they are angry and feel ignored and “wronged” by the city’s decision. Ham-Campbell, who reports to work in-person each day, said her employees want to be vaccinated.
“We were forced to open for financial reasons,” Ham-Campbell said. “Teachers, on the other hand, they are staying home, they are getting paid, and they are giving them the vaccines so they feel safe.”