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Maine teachers demand to be prioritized for vaccine as districts look to expand in-person learning

The Maine Education Association is calling for 50,000+ educators to be prioritized in the state's COVID-19 vaccine plans.

PORTLAND, Maine — As some school districts in Maine look for ways to increase in-person learning, educators are demanding they be prioritized in the state's vaccination plans.

Teachers currently fall under Phase 1B among other frontline essential workers, but given the shortage of doses, it is still unclear when and how they will be eligible to receive shots. 

"I'm a little frustrated because we're in this day in and day out," Auburn elementary school teacher Courtney Pierce said. 

Pierce, who also serves as president of the school district's teachers union, said there is growing concern among teachers with ongoing conversations about bringing more students back into the classroom.

"It's still really hard every day," Doug Hodum said.

Hodum is a science teacher at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington who has been balancing remote and in-person learning for months. He believes getting more of his students back will benefit everyone. It is just too soon.

"I think there is a mounting pressure for us to get back to normal, but if we're going to advance that discussion we need the vaccination to be happening."

Maine health officials blame a drastic shortage in doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for the uncertainty. 

Dr. Nirav Shah also pointed to growing evidence of lower risk of spread in school settings in a press briefing this week.

"Owing to things like masking, distancing, schools can still be a safe place even separate and apart from vaccination," Dr. Shah told reporters.

According to Maine CDC, the COVID-19 case rate in schools is far lower than that of the general population. 

RELATED: Amid decreasing COVID-19 cases, Portland schools weigh a return to in-person learning

Shah said efforts will continue to be focused on vaccinating those most at-risk: Mainers 70 and older, not front-line essential workers, including teachers, grocery store employees, and postal workers will be eligible who were originally in Phase 1B.

Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the state Dept. of Health and Human Services, said officials are currently reviewing a federal list that included teachers among critical workers to determine future phases.

"Maine values the important contributions of school teachers and they will be vaccinated, just as every Maine person will be vaccinated in time," Farwell said in a statement. 

At least 28 states nationwide have dedicated plans focused on how and when to vaccinate educators, according to EducationWeek. Most New England states, including Maine, are not on the list. 

That is why the Maine Education Association is calling for greater prioritization. 

"We know the transmission rates are lower, but they are still there," association president, Grace Leavitt told NEWS CENTER Maine. "All of these people are on the frontlines with students. and need to be prioritized for getting vaccinations."

Leavitt said she and her colleagues understand the shortage and demand, but added that should not hinder future planning efforts. 

According to the Maine Dept. of Education, there are more than 50,000 educators statewide that would need to be vaccinated. 10 percent of the teaching staff is 65 years of age and older.

For teachers like Hodum, they are willing to be patient so long as they know some kind of plan is in place. 

"You can't say how critically important and vital it is to have students in buildings and continue with their education and on the other hand say, 'Well it is critical but we're not going to prioritize the staff who are making that happen,'" Hodum said. 

The Biden Administration is expected to release additional federal guidance on reopening schools Friday.