While distribution of COVID-19 vaccine is underway for educators in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade levels in Colorado, a group of higher education professionals are looking for the same access to the shots for staff at their campuses.
University of Northern Colorado President Andy Feinstein and Aims Community College President Leah Bornstein were among 18 leaders of higher education institutions statewide to include their names on a letter to Gov. Jared Polis earlier this month lobbying for college and university staff members to receive the vaccine with other educators — rather than grouping the higher education staff with the general population.
“I think university faculty and staff should’ve been vaccinated with frontline teachers and educators like in PK-12,” Feinstein said in a phone conversation on Feb. 19, nearly three weeks after higher education colleagues sent the letter to Polis with copies forwarded to other state officials including at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“We’ve had students opt out of school because of fear and concern of COVID-19,” Feinstein continued. “If we can vaccinate faculty, then we can ensure to get education in person and those students can go out and be productive members of a university.”
The 546-word letter, that also carried the names of Tony Frank, chancellor of the Colorado State University System, and Mark Kennedy, president of the University of Colorado System, thanked Polis for his leadership and commitment during the year-long pandemic while emphasizing the impact on future college students who do not attend schools because of COVID-19.
“Many of our institutions have offered significant numbers of in-person courses, research and academic labs, and studios throughout the academic year, which has placed large segments of our faculties on the front lines during the pandemic,” the higher education leaders wrote. “Although a switch to teaching many of our courses online has been successful despite challenges, it is in-person education and activity that help our students and communities thrive. Online education is an effective modality, but the disruption of in-person learning opportunities has discouraged many students from advancing toward their educational goals, and negatively impacted the availability of the highly skilled workforce Colorado needs.”
Bornstein said the leaders of all public institutions of higher learning in Colorado have been meeting since early January to discuss vaccines. After sending the letter to Polis, Bornstein said the higher education representatives requested a meeting with the governor and were instead directed to meeting with officials from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“I understand CDPHE is taking the lead and I understand they’re the best people to talk to,” Bornstein said. “It’s always a little bit of a bummer when you’re asked to see someone else than who you want to see.”
Conor Cahill, Polis’ press secretary, said in a emailed statement everyone in Colorado will be able to get a vaccine and everyone is equally deserving. Cahill added the focus on PK-12 educators receiving vaccine has a two-prong impact: allowing students to return to in-person learning while helping parents get back to work.
“The Governor has heard from many professionals including college professors with young kids a home that they too are facing challenges working and want their kids back in school,” Cahill wrote in the statement. “The Governor understands that vaccinating and protecting the staff at Colorado’s institutions of higher education is a critical step toward ensuring safe, in-person operations at our colleges and universities this Fall and the state relies on the federal government for supply.”
Feinstein and Bornstein acknowledged the governor is in a challenging position right now — in terms of dealing with limited supply of vaccine coming into the state and hearing from groups that want better access to shots. But, while understanding that reality, the presidents also say they want their workers to be bumped up on the priority timeline.
“We still have folks in our institutions that are essential workers and I think that’s what we’re having a hard time understanding,” Bornstein said. “Why is that pool of folks not being considered in Phase 1B.3, that phase, and that’s where our concern lies.”
Bornstein said at Aims, those essential workers would include faculty or academic support team employees who are in person with frontline students services such as in a library, registration or financial aid.
According to the state’s current vaccination timeline, shots are being administered to individuals in Phases 1A, 1B.1 and 1B.2. The latter phase went into effect on Feb. 8 for individuals ages 65-69 years old, PK-12 educators and child-care workers and remaining state government employees.
Phase 1B.3, which is scheduled to start this winter according to the timeline on the CDPHE website, is designated for frontline essentials workers and people ages 16 to 64 with two or more high-risk conditions. Among the essential frontline workers classified in Phase 1B.3 are: those in food and agriculture, manufacturing, the U.S. Postal Service, public transportation and grocery stores.
“It’s easy for me to cast criticism on this, and it’s a complex situation,” said Feinstein, who sent out a four-part tweet on Feb. 4 reiterating his advocacy for higher education faculty and staff. “The governor’s staff is trying to do the very best they can to support the health and safety of our communities. All I’m doing is advocating for faculty and staff at UNC. From my perspective, I think it’s warranted they are prioritized.”
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