Rhode Island’s college instructors and faculty wait for their vaccine prioritization

RHODE ISLAND'S priority schedule for vaccines includes a space for K-12 teachers and staff, and early childhood educators, but not college and university professors. / COURTESY R.I. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH.

PROVIDENCE – Most college professors and instructors consider themselves teachers. But in prioritization for the COVID-19 vaccine, in Rhode Island as in other states in southern New England, they haven’t been emphasized the same way.

Rhode Island’s push to vaccinate teachers with at least one shot by the end of March included only early childhood and K-12 teachers, not people working in higher education.

Some question why. On Twitter and other social media outlets, college professors noted that they, too, are working in classrooms with students.

All of the Ocean State’s private institutions held in-person classes this academic year, noted Dan Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island. While these instructors had a choice of whether to teach their courses online, or in-person, the institutions were open.

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College professors and instructors have started asking where they fit in the vaccine rollout.

“We would defer to the health professionals to make the decision on timing,” Egan said. “But we would advocate that given what we’ve done, given that we’ve stayed open, given that we’re an important part of the economic sector, there is some sense that our vulnerable faculty and staff should be protected.”

So far, Gov. Daniel J. McKee has been noncommittal about when college faculty and staff might be vaccinated, but on Friday he said he had asked the college presidents to provide him with the data on their staff and faculty, so the state can be prepared when it has more supply.

According to Egan, the 11 public and private institutions of post-secondary education in Rhode Island have about 25,000 people in staff and faculty positions.

That puts the workforce on a par with the K-12 and licensed child care workforce, which has about 29,000 people. They received prioritization on March 9, with McKee announcing the expansion as essential for the state to reopen its economy.

When asked by a reporter Friday when college faculty could expect to receive priority, McKee said his goal is to have all K-12 schools and colleges and universities “open fully” in September. He hinted that there also may be an effort to get college students vaccinated before they return. It’s routine in higher education for institutions to require students to receive vaccinations before they can attend classes.

Rhode Island is not alone in making a distinction between K-12 and higher ed. Connecticut and Massachusetts, as well other states in New England, have not given post-secondary educators the same priority as school teachers and staff.

Why make a distinction between the K-12 and college-level workforce?

Theresa Devine, a labor economist, is a teaching professor at the University of Rhode Island. She recently became eligible for the vaccine in Rhode Island because she’s 62. So far, like many in that age bracket, she hasn’t had much luck in getting an appointment.

For the past year, she’s taught three classes a week at URI, all in person. She wears a mask and makes sure her students have, as well. It’s protected her so far, she believes, because she’s been exposed several times in her classroom to students who later tested positive for the virus.

“I’ve been OK,” she said. “And I’ve been exposed over and over and over. They’ve always said: I had no close contact because I’ve always kept my mask on and I’ve kept my distance from the students.”

She continued to teach in-class, although she had the option of teaching virtually, because she felt it was in the best interest of the students. “I can’t teach the material I teach online,” she said. “… I can look out in the classroom, I can look at people. If a kid looks puzzled, I can ask them, are you with me? You don’t build up that rapport online. And in a classroom, they’re not just learning economics, they’re learning how to communicate.”

Sandra Luzzi Sneesby, an associate professor of communication and film media, is the chair of the faculty senate at Community College of Rhode Island. She said professors at CCRI have recently started questioning what the game plan is for vaccination, given that the college wants its instructors to return to in-person teaching by summer session.

For CCRI, that’s in late May. And the summer session is popular, she said, among professors who work part-time or need to add additional classroom hours.

“They want us back in the classroom,” Luzzi Sneesby said. “The bottom line, I would request we be treated in the same vein as the K-12 teachers. There shouldn’t be a dividing line.”

At CCRI, she said, which has more than 11,000 students, many of them need additional support and have needed to have in-person help. While most of the college’s professors have taught online, students are saying they want in-person.

“People are starting to say, what is the plan here? We need to get vaccinated.”

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.

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