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Hope Zimmerman, a teacher of family and consumer sciences at Clarke Middle School, recieves her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in the Clarke Central High School gymnasium on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. This site vaccinated aproximately 700 Clarke Central School District employees on Wednesday, with another 700 recieving their vaccinations at Cedar Shoals High School. (Photo/Zachary Tate, ztate@randb.com)

“I feel emotional because there’s a lot of people who wish to have it [the vaccine],” said Clarke Central cafeteria staff member, Maria Rojas Barrera.

Rojas Barrera is one of approximately 1,400 Clarke County School District employees who received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine Wednesday. Employees are expected to receive the second dose on March 31.

On March 8, Gov. Brian Kemp expanded the COVID-19 vaccine eligibility list to include educators and school employees across the state.

Between two sites, Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals high schools, teachers, staff and other faculty were invited to sign up for appointments voluntarily through a mass email sent to employees throughout the school district. CCSD administrators and staff at the district office made sure that every employee was aware of this opportunity, said Jillian Whatley, executive director of student support services.

“We're trying to be equitable with our services so everyone is open to come. So if you're a custodian, if you are a full service worker, if you are an administrator, this is for you. We did not want to make a hierarchy,” Whatley said.

Since receiving the vaccine is strictly voluntary, CCSD is not tracking who is and is not vaccinated within the district. CCSD will also not ask employees if they are vaccinated, and unvaccinated employees will not face consequences, said Donald Porter, CCSD’s director of PR and communications.

Employees who did not get vaccinated through CCSD have either chosen to opt out or are already vaccinated through earlier state efforts, Porter said. CCSD plans to host other events to allow additional employees to get vaccinated. CCSD employs approximately 2,300 teachers, staff and faculty, Porter said.

The vaccination process

Vaccines were distributed in both of the high schools’ gymnasiums by a joint effort of school nurses and medical students from the medical partnership between the University of Georgia and Augusta University.

All students who were administering the vaccines were volunteers. Medical students were also helping those who registered for the vaccine with their paperwork and checking-in.

“People are super excited. Everyone that I've talked to, they've been, they're very grateful for what we're doing here today,” said medical student Rajashri Manjunath.

Operations ran smoothly with teachers being escorted to the vaccine site and having areas to rest afterwards.

What’s to come

CCSD allowed students from pre-K through second grade return to in-person classes two weeks ago, if permitted by parents.

Quentori Wynder is a second grade teacher with 13 students at Stroud Elementary. She has adjusted the way things work in her classroom while trying to keep some things the same.

“The basic procedural things I keep the same. Of course, you know, they can't be close together so that's different, and we have to sanitize and wipe up just the high touch areas.”

Wynder said that none of the kids have expressed concerns, and she hasn’t had any cases in her classroom during efforts to bring back in-person classes.

CCSD is currently operating mostly virtually with in-person classes starting soon. On March 15, third grade through fifth grade and high school students are expected to return to in-person classes, if choosing to return. On March 22, all middle school students will be allowed back in-person.

Principal Stacie Carson and Assistant Principal Cedric Payne from Stroud Elementary are taking steps to help parents and family members of students feel assured about the procedures being implemented in the school.

“[Payne] has a safety team, and so they met over the course of several months based on the guidelines we were given and then created a plan for the school,” Carson said.

Efforts include having enough PPE for students and employees on hand and having specific entry and exit signs throughout the building. Stroud has not reported any cases, Carson said.

COVID-19 cases in Georgia have been slowly decreasing over the past week. However, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still suggest people wear a mask and remain practicing social distancing.

With the available vaccines, community members are looking forward to life with more protection.

“I do think I'm probably gonna be a little more confident, like if I have to go grocery shopping, or when I'm around kids,” said Clarke Central science teacher Adam Lee.