Some Montana schools begin preparing to administer COVID vaccines

GFPS superintendent Tom Moore
Posted at 5:43 PM, Jan 12, 2021

GREAT FALLS — It’s not quite time yet, but some Montana school districts have begun planning to administer COVID-19 vaccinations to their teachers and staff when they are available.

According to the latest draft of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, Frontline Essential Workers will receive the vaccine in Phase 1c. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that group includes education workers such as teachers and support staff like bus drivers and school administrators. There are some cases where school district employees could fall into Phase 1b in Montana, including if they are over the age of 70 and/or if they have a qualifying, high-risk medical condition, which the state says includes cancer, COPD, heart conditions, and others.

Neither Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore nor Fort Benton Public Schools Superintendent Jory Thompson are sure exactly when their staff will be able to receive the vaccine, but they’ve been preparing for that time anyway.

“I threw it out to all my staff, and that includes bus drivers, you know, we’re a small school,” Jory said. “So, I just threw it out to everybody and anybody that is interested, I just put their name on a list and give it to County Health, and County Health takes care of it from there.”

Jory notes that his staff is only about 50 people, and most of them have already indicated that they would like to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available. In a smaller school district like Fort Benton, that’s most of the prep work right there.

“I think they’ll just come in here and do it,” Thompson explained. “Just like we do flu clinics and whatnot.”

Experience working flu shot clinics is helping the Great Falls Public Schools district plan their vaccinations as well, but the process isn’t exactly the same. GFPS has a staff of almost 1,500. Not only does that mean more leg work is required to prepare for their turn in the Vaccination Plan, but it also means a higher likelihood that some staff members will actually fall into Phase 1b, as mentioned above, and not Phase 1c with the rest of the staff.

GFPS sent out a survey last week, and Moore says the response has been quick and mostly identical. Of the over 1,000 responses the district has already gotten, Moore gets the sense that most of his staff is anxious and ready to get vaccinated when it’s their turn.

“For the most part, I think people are anxious to get vaccinated and get some immunity to this virus and do everything they can do to say healthy and remain healthy,” he said. “So, I think our teachers are anxious, for the most part, and our administrators and counselors and so forth are anxious to move forward this year with it.” The process won’t be all that different from Fort Benton’s, it will just happen on a much larger scale.

Moore says the district will work with local healthcare partners like the Cascade City-County Health Department, Benefis Health System, and others to distribute the vaccine. GFPS also has over 20 school nurses, a new addition that was added this year in an effort to be more prepared for potential COVID-19 outbreaks at individual schools, and they will be able to help with vaccine distribution as well.

Like Fort Benton, GFPS is in the preliminary stages of planning what vaccine distribution will look like, but Moore envisions a lot of before and after-school clinics, possibly at some of the larger schools and with the help of Alluvion Health and others.

“Depending upon the number of faculty at particular schools, we may have the clinics out at their schools, we may have them at one of the other, larger schools,” he said after the Great Falls Public Schools board meeting on Monday. “We have community healthcare clinics at Paris Gibson Education Center and at Longfellow Elementary that Alluvion staffs already, so those two places for certain would be shot centers, I would imagine, because of the staff there. We’ll just have to schedule it accordingly so that we can do it and not interrupt the school day as much as possible, and then do it safely so that people are distanced and so forth.”

The district still needs to go through the survey responses once they get all of those back to get an idea of exactly how many teachers and staff members want the vaccine, and where those employees fit in the phases of vaccine distribution.

The Cascade City-County Health Department announced on Tuesday that they hope to move into Phase 1b of vaccine distribution beginning the week of January 18. The Health Department has not yet released information about what that will look like, where those vaccines will be administered, or how people who fall into this phase can sign up or register to receive their first vaccine, but they did note that more information will be released next week.

Great Falls Public Schools, Fort Benton Public Schools, and other school districts around the state will continue to work with local healthcare officials and facilities as the COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available and are offered to a growing portion of the population.