Noe Ortega

Acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega said during a briefing Friday, March 12, 2021, that Pennsylvania’s teacher and school staff vaccination initiative is on schedule.

Pennsylvania’s teacher and school staff vaccination initiative is on schedule, acting Education Secretary Noe Ortega said during a briefing Friday.

Through the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, roughly 6,500 Johnson & Johnson shots have been administered to teachers and staff members as of Friday morning.

“This vaccine is a bright light that will help to create the conditions for teachers and school staff to return to where they want and need to be – in classrooms, driving school buses, serving meals in cafeterias and supporting learners for in-person instruction,” Ortega said.

PEMA and the state Department of Education phased in vaccination sites through the commonwealth’s intermediate units, beginning with two locations Wednesday.

Around eight more sites were added Thursday, and an additional 10 were brought online Friday, with the final eight sites beginning operations Saturday.

The Pennsylvania Army National Guard and AMI Expeditionary Healthcare LLC are administering the boosters. 

Thomas Butler, executive director of Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8, said three regional sites in Cambria, Somerset and Blair counties would begin operations Saturday.

The IU is working with 35 school districts, 44 non-public schools and five career and technology centers to coordinate the efforts.

He couldn’t provide additional details because those are closed locations, but noted that the IU is “very happy to be helping PEMA with this initiative.”

Across the state, there were 240,000 survey responses from educators and school staff interested in receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and state officials expect the initiative to wrap up at the end of March. 

Teachers, staff and others at local schools have signed up by the dozens to receive the new vaccine, according to district officials.

Thomas “T.J.” Kakabar, superintendent at Conemaugh Township Area School District, said around 30 employees have chosen to receive the booster.

“I am guessing that getting only one shot instead of two helped make their decision,” he said.

However, the school leader couldn’t share any more information due to HIPAA laws.

He’s in favor of the booster being provided to educators across the state and would also like to see police and first responders provided with the same opportunity.

Richland, United and Central Cambria school districts also had good response for the new single-dose vaccine, officials said. 

“We had many who signed up for the vaccine,” United Superintendent Barbara Parkins said.

Her district surveyed the faculty and generated a list of eligible individuals based on the state’s priority designation.

Parkins expected United staff to start receiving their doses at the end of the week.

Richland officials confirmed that around 40 employees have signed up for the Johnson & Johnson option and expect that, as more vaccines become available, more faculty and staff will get on board.

“I think it is great that school personnel have been prioritized for the latest vaccine,” Westmont Hilltop teacher Jerome DiBernardo said.

He’s already received the Pfizer shot but is glad his colleagues have this opportunity, although he’d like to see other front line workers, such as retail and restaurant workers, receive the vaccine as well.

Educators weren’t the only individuals targeted by Wolf’s initiative. Those with close contact with students, such as bus drivers were also eligible for the new booster.

Timothy McIlwain, president of McIlwain School Bus Lines, said his drivers were “fortunate” to be included in the roll out.

“There has been a very positive response from our drivers,” he said. “Close to 75% have either already been vaccinated or have signed up to be vaccinated.”

Joshua Byers is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Journo_Josh.

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