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Special needs pre-schools push for COVID-19 vaccine

Teachers say being one on one with children with disabilities puts them at higher risk than a regular classroom.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Another group of teachers is demanding that they be prioritized in the state's COVID vaccination plans.

This time it's special education teachers and Ed-techs who work with pre-school children who have developmental and physical disabilities.

Because of their high needs, educators often must work in close physical contact with these children, and the teachers say that puts them at higher risk for COVID-19 than being in a regular classroom.  

The Shooting Stars Program is a private pre-school that contracts with Child Development Services under the Maine Department of Education to provide children with disabilities. which can range from mild to severe. 

They work one on one with students who have feeding issues, behavioral challenges, or need to be moved to and from a wheelchair.

"They are ripping off PPE. They are spiting and biting and screaming and they are ripping off teachers' PPE," Ruth Hughes, the Director of the Shooting Stars Program, said.

Some of the students are also nonverbal and the majority can't follow safety guidelines against COVID-19. Hughes worries about potential exposure to COVID when students go home to their families every day. Even more frustrating, the program's therapists who provide speech and other services, who can work virtually or behind plexiglass, have been vaccinated. 

"We need to be a priority and if our therapists are vaccinated, why aren't teachers? They are with these kids for longer hours," Hughes said. 

"Those teachers are up close all day long with these children," said Tina Cannon, the Director of Operations at the Children's Odyssey Program.

Laura Glover and Tina Cannon run Children's Odyssey. The program serves about 100 children, infants, toddlers, and pre-school students including children with special needs.

Credit: Children's Odyssey

While teachers currently fall under Phase 1B among other frontline essential workers, it's not known when they will be eligible to receive shots. 

Maine CDC officials point to growing evidence of lower risk of spread in school settings. But educators say teachers and staff who work with Maine's special needs population from pre-K to 12th grade need to be protected, especially as schools move to expand in-person learning. Because teachers are putting their health on the back burner to help students with the biggest needs succeed.

NEWS CENTER Maine reached out to the Department of Health and Human Resources. Director of Communication Jackie Farrell tells us in a statement:

"The U.S. CDC has indicated that schools, with mitigation practices, are safe environments and that their reopening should not be contingent upon vaccinating teachers. That is the case in Maine where the COVID-19 case rate in schools is far lower than that of the general population, demonstrating that schools are safer environments. Maine values the important contributions of school teachers and they will be vaccinated, just as every Maine person will be vaccinated in time, but Maine is receiving a limited supply of the vaccine from the Federal government to distribute to our population which is the oldest by median age in the nation. We have prioritized it for those 70 and older, who are most likely to suffer and die if they contract COVID-19. While the U.S. CDC advisory committee has recommended that teachers be included among critical workers considered to be frontline, Maine is reviewing this list and will make determinations as this phase approaches."

For more information on vaccinations from the Maine Centers for Disease Control, click here.