Marie van Staveren had been teaching students in person for over five months when she finally received her first coronavirus vaccine at the Baltimore Convention Center on Feb. 10. She’s didn’t felt like she was in grave danger at work — as a lecturer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, there were never more than eight people in the lab with her, and her students and teaching assistants were more than happy to keep their masks on.
Nevertheless, getting the vaccine had been difficult for van Staveren, who teaches chemistry classes in person at UMBC two days a week (in the fall, it was four). When the state first released its priority groups in December, higher education employees weren’t listed. They still aren’t, explicitly — the state’s official list of eligible groups mentions “education staff, including K-12 teachers, support staff and daycare providers,” with no nod to the over-26,000 higher education workers in the state.
The University System of Maryland did send out specific guidance on Jan. 25 indicating that certain higher education employees did qualify for the vaccine, at which point van Staveren added her name to waiting list after waiting list. Still, she ran into trouble — one chain of drug stores required you to indicate your profession, but higher education wasn’t an option.
“I could lie and say I was K-12 or lie and say I was essential personnel, but I’m not really either of those categories,” she said. “I was like, I don’t know what to do about this because as far as I know, I’m eligible, but their website doesn’t let me put my category of eligibility.”
Van Staveren wasn’t the only one unsure if higher education workers counted under the “educator” umbrella. Eli Modlin, chief of staff at Salisbury University, recalls the period of time before guidance came from the university system in which personnel at the university, which had operated with largely face-to-face learning since the fall, were unsure whether they qualified
“There was a lot of confusion on our end. It was something we were very concerned about,” he said.
The eventual guidance came after a push for clarification from the university system. In a Jan. 14 bulletin to vaccine providers, the Maryland Department of Health finally stated that university workers who were teaching in person, who had essential functions related to campus operations, and who required residential housing, would be included among groups 1B and 1C.
Jinlene Chan, the Maryland Department of Health’s acting deputy secretary of public health services, noted that this guidance was in fact a clarification, not a change — higher education had always been a part of the state’s intended priorities.
“When we talk about vaccination rollout, I think this is part of the process from the federal level to the state to the local level, these operational questions,” she says. “Just trying to make those clarifications is part of the work that we’re doing.”
Accessing the vaccine
Even once it became clear that university employees were eligible for the vaccine, though, accessing it didn’t become much easier.
In contrast with their peers in K-12 education, few colleges and universities have successfully partnered with local health departments and hospitals to make it easier for their employees to access the vaccine, even once it was made clear that they were permitted to.
Although it was difficult for her to get the vaccine, van Staveren said she was not bothered by the fact that K-12 teachers received prioritization over higher education workers in most counties.
“First-graders just can’t go to school online the way my students can,” she said. “We need to be prioritizing K-12 where we can, because I feel like there’s so much more need for them to be in their classrooms than us.”
Chan says institutions of higher education were given similar guidance from the state as K-12 schools were.
“What we provided the school systems, and really to higher education, as well, was that they identify a partner that they might be able to work with to provide vaccinations,” she says. “But that’s just half the equation. The other half is just getting the vaccinations themselves.”
At this point, most universities have set up web pages and resource centers to help steer their employees in the right direction. Some, including the state’s flagship school, the University of Maryland, College Park, are also trying to get on-campus vaccine clinics, though that likely won’t happen for a while due to the low number of doses available.
At one university system school, however, partnering with the local health department appears to be proving successful. Salisbury made arrangements with the Wicomico County Health Department and TidalHealth, a local hospital system, to get its first responders, frontline health care employees and other essential employees vaccinated as soon as possible.
Then, once the clarification came that faculty and certain other staff members qualified for the vaccine as well, eligible Salisbury employees, as determined by the university’s health team, were sent the same registration forms from the county as other educators in the state.
“While there’s certainly not enough for our folks, we’re extremely appreciative of A., being included and, B., the partnerships that we have with the Wicomico County Health Department and Tidalhealth that they’ve included our folks,” said Modlin.
The school also addressed a common concern — that some people may struggle to fill out online forms — by creating a buddy system that partners those employees with someone else in their department who can help them navigate that technological barrier.
It’s hard to gauge if this measure has made a significant difference, yet; due to the classified nature of medical information, Salisbury doesn’t actually know how many of its employees have been vaccinated. But they are working on a system that would give them anonymized data on how many employees and students have been vaccinated so that they can use that metric to inform reopening decisions and decisions about moving onto new priority groups within the university community.
Other institutions of higher education have not been as lucky. To Bernard Sadusky, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, the state’s community colleges, despite being a part of groups 1B and 1C, haven’t actually been prioritized in any way — despite, in the case of some programs, having been in-person since last spring.
“We have a lot of courses that have to have face-to-face instruction,” he said; commercial vehicle operating programs, for example, require hands-on hours to receive a license. “A lot of those courses lead to revitalization and reopening the economy … but there’s no priority (for) that.”
Plus, he said, community college students seem to have a strong preference for in-person learning, which has led to a dip in enrollment as primarily remote courses continue.
To Sadusky, the issue shouldn’t be addressed on a county-by-county basis. Instead, for community colleges to receive genuine prioritization, their importance in sustaining the economy needs to be recognized at the state level.
“I think our local health departments are doing a great job, but they’re struggling. So I think it has to be more global — meaning statewide,” he says.
Van Staveren echoes Sadusky’s sentiments when asked what could have been done to make it easier for herself and her colleagues to get the vaccine.
First, she said, it would have been more efficient if she could have signed up on just one statewide registry rather than having to monitor dozens of different hospital, health department and pharmacy websites every day.
The other thing that would have made it easier was if that initial confusion over whether higher education employees qualified has been avoided.
“I wish the state website, even today, put us on a list somewhere. Just that level of uncertainty for several weeks where I was like, am I eligible? Am I not eligible? I would have really appreciated that,” she said. “And it surprised me because we’re not a small sector of the economy. There are a lot of us. And to be ambiguously on those lists really surprised me.”