ROCHESTER, Minn. — There was a lot of excitement, followed by a lot of disappointment.
A number of teachers in Rochester had heard they would be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine through a supply of allotments at Hy-Vee grocery stores. An email was sent to certified staff with a subject line that said "Vaccination time slots available!" The email included a link to make an appointment.
The school district is switching back to an in-person learning model in March for elementary students and April for secondary students. Teachers saw the Hy-Vee option as a chance to get the vaccine before that transition.
However, that excitement didn't last long. The teachers soon were told that those doses through Hy-Vee were available only for people age 65 and older.
The Minnesota Department of Health released a statement about the mix-up, explaining that Hy-Vee had not clarified who was eligible for the doses.
"After we learned that Hy-Vee was offering appointments to a broader population and hadn’t provided the limited eligibility criteria on their website, we told Hy-Vee they needed to follow guidelines and should only be vaccinating people 65 and older," the statement said in part. "We also offered support to help make sure the teachers who had made appointments were appropriately connected to the educator vaccination program currently running in Olmsted County."
Representatives with the Olmsted County Public Health Department could not be reached for comment.
Although educators are currently in line, the process has been slower, and more convoluted, than many had hoped. That's why when teachers saw the opportunity for the Hy-Vee option, they jumped at the chance. A teacher at Mayo High School in Rochester said all the allotments were already taken by the time they received the email with the sign-up link, so they started looking elsewhere.
"I got one at Stewartville, which was ultimately canceled," the teacher said about their appointment to get the vaccine. "Imagine how excited and relieved we were to get appointments, only to be equally disappointed as Hy-Vee was forced to cancel them by the very organization that is supposed to be taking care of us!"
A representative for Hy-Vee said the stores stopped offering the vaccines to teachers when store officials realized they were misinformed about who could receive their allotments.
"(The) Minnesota Department of Health did let us know earlier this week that while educators and child care staff are eligible under overall state guidance, they are not eligible under the retail pharmacy program, which is where our Minnesota vaccine allocations (as well as some other Minnesota pharmacy allocations) are through," said Christina Gayman, Hy-Vee director of public relations.
The issue with the Hy-Vee vaccine rose to the attention of state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-St. Paul, who released a video statement about it Wednesday evening, Feb. 24. She said she spoke to both Hy-Vee officials and the Minnesota Department of Health to get clarification.
"My phone, email and social media has been packed today with concerns about vaccine distribution, particularly in the Rochester area," Nelson said. "This type of miscommunication doesn't give me great confidence, really, in the rest of the vaccine allocation and distribution."
As of Wednesday, 1,755 staff members with Rochester Public Schools had been offered the vaccine. With around 3,200 total staff members, that means that about 54% of the school district's workforce has had a chance to get the vaccine. Heather Nessler, executive director of communications for Rochester Public Schools, said the school district cannot determine how many of those are teachers or paraprofessionals, and how many are other staff, such as administrators or bus drivers.
The district has been put between the proverbial rock and a hard place. A large number of parents have been demanding that schools let their children back in the buildings as soon as possible. They have protested outside the Edison Building multiple times. Within the past week, they paid for multiple billboards to go up throughout Rochester, advocating for the return of students to the classroom.
At the same time, teachers are nervous about the prospect of having to teach in person before receiving the vaccine. The school district conducted a survey of its teachers in January that showed their hesitation about a possible return.
According to that survey, 34.7% of teachers said they "strongly oppose" an in-person learning model. The same survey showed 21.7% of teachers "strongly support" in-person learning.
Rochester Education Association President Dan Kuhlman said that, even with mitigation efforts in place, spending the entire day with hundreds of students and other staff members makes educators anxious.
"The science changes. The CDC changes their thoughts and recommendations and whatever else. That's all well and good. But personally, teachers are no different than any other adult out there," he said. "They are nervous — they are nervous to go back without being vaccinated."