Hundreds of teachers, school staff vaccinated at town pod

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The town of Johnston gave more than 200 teachers and school staff their initial dose of COVID-19 vaccine last Friday afternoon, as Gov. Dan McKee’s push to inoculate educators is well underway throughout the state.

McKee stopped by the Johnston pod at the town’s indoor recreation center on Friday, chatting with National Education Association Rhode Island chapter president Robert Walsh and American Federation of Teachers president Frank Flynn. Mayor Joseph Polisena said McKee was “very impressed” with the process.

“It went very well,” Polisena said Wednesday afternoon. “Once again, it was flawless. I can say there were no hiccups. We did the teachers, we did the ancillary staff … I’m still on the phone every day trying to get the rest of the citizens done.”

Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo concurred with the mayor, though he added it is difficult to gauge how many staff members are left to vaccinate since some received inoculations at either state-run clinics or local pharmacies.

DiLullo himself received his first Pfizer vaccination at CVS a couple of weeks ago, and he is slated to receive his second dose on April 2. He said he didn’t experience any side effects from the shot.

“We would like to see our teachers back after April vacation,” DiLullo said, offering a potential timeline for a steady return. “That would be a sufficient amount of time for them to get the vaccine, either the one-shot or the two-shot. We’re already starting to see many of those teachers come back because they were able to get vaccinations at other sites.”

DiLullo had said during a special School Committee meeting this month that he expected teachers to return to their classrooms once they were fully vaccinated. He said this week that there hasn’t been any pushback to that suggestion, adding that it will likely be a month before educators begin coming back.

“I think our teachers support the idea of people coming back when they can,” DiLullo said. “I would imagine if anybody still needs to stay out, they really are going to have to go through their doctor and get a specific reason for that, but as far as the district goes, we’ve offered the vaccine in the town, there’s ample opportunities in the community to get that … I think a majority of our teachers, when they’re able to come back, will be back. I think they’re committed enough to our students to make that decision and to return to school.”

Polisena attributed the success of Friday’s pod to Johnston Police Chief Joseph Razza and Deputy Chief Mark Vieira, as well as the Johnston Fire Department, all of whom were instrumental to the setup. Firefighters were stationed at the center basketball court giving shots, with some help from the mayor himself.

Still, though, Polisena said patients are shocked when they get to their table.

“People will say, ‘You’re the mayor,’ and I’ll say, ‘Shh, don’t tell anybody,’” said Polisena, a nurse by trade. “They laugh. I’m just doing a public service. I’m no different than the firefighters. We work as a team. Then you’ve got the police that are directing street traffic and foot traffic and plus the volunteers. Razza and Vieira put this all together. It’s a true success story. We are the gold standard for pods in the state.”

Both Polisena and DiLullo are looking forward to teachers making their way back to the halls, as state testing looms and the district makes an effort to bring more students back to an in-person learning model. The superintendent said there will still be distance learning options offered to students for the remainder of the year.

DiLullo reiterated his plan to bring distance learners back for Rhode Island Common Assessment System, or RICAS, testing on four Mondays starting next week and running through April. Those who attend class in person will take their exams on alternating days throughout the rest of the week.

“That allows us to keep that group separate, test them and then clean the building after they leave,” DiLullo said. “After that, we’re considering bringing kids back on the Mondays. Hopefully the beginning of May, we’ll have students K-12 in on Mondays as well. The students at the elementary level are fully in four days a week, so they’re not on a hybrid model, however the middle school and the high school are on a hybrid model. We would like to start bringing those students back full-time as well.”

Since the pandemic has shifted how Johnston is administering state examinations, the district will have to prepare for other local and national tests in the spring as well.

“The high school has testing coming in April and May, they are testing SATs, PSATs, and science testing in May,” DiLullo said. “The elementary and the middle school also has science testing in May. It’s not as extensive as RICAS, and hopefully we’ll have most of our students back by the time that test has to be administered, and that’s given to grades five and eight.”

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