Guest columnist James F. Birge: Expand vaccine eligibility to higher education workforce

We already know that our teachers and caregivers are heroes, but during this challenging year they have become superheroes. I was happy ...

We already know that our teachers and caregivers are heroes, but during this challenging year they have become superheroes.

I was happy to see that earlier this month, Gov. Baker announced that K-12 educators, child care workers, and school staff are eligible for vaccination starting March 11. I agree that Massachusetts needs to do what it takes to move toward K-12 schools being fully open for in-person learning, and vaccinating education workers is a positive step forward.

However, it’s surprising to see that faculty and staff in higher education are not included in these eligibility guidelines. Indeed, colleges, including the Massachusetts State University System, have remained open for much of the past year, carefully following specific safety protocols in order to do so, and making the needed investments in testing, remote learning technology, and other items like barriers and sanitizers.

Despite Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ swift pivot to offering much of our instruction remotely throughout the pandemic, many members of our workforce, especially those involved in direct student contact, continue to work on campus and face exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. Including our higher education workforce in the Phase 2 vaccination schedule will allow MCLA to quickly develop plans to offer more in-person instruction and on-campus student activities.

At least 32 other states currently prioritize the higher education workforce in either their Phase 2 (or earlier) vaccine distribution plans. Prioritizing these workers and their access to the COVID-19 vaccine is a critical component of our mission to offer high-quality, affordable pathways to a post-secondary degree for Massachusetts residents, and our goal to ensure students continue to be able to live on-campus, attend in-person classes, and engage with the college community — which has been a lifeline for many during the past year.

Changing the COVID-19 vaccination schedule to include the higher education workforce in Phase 2 directly aligns with the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent recommendations. These recommendations advise that our workforce be prioritized because in order to effectively deliver on our promise to educate our citizenry, our employees’ “work-related duties must be performed on-site and involve being in close proximity to the public or to coworkers.”

Our workforce is an active part of the wider community, volunteering, contributing to the local economy, and taking care of their own families through this challenging time. Vaccinating the faculty and staff of MCLA, one of Berkshire County’s largest employers, is an effective strategy for stopping community spread and stabilizing the regional economy.

As MCLA settles into the spring semester, we are deeply grateful for yet another safe and successful transition of our community back to campus. We have done this together, as a team, for two semesters now. In the fall, MCLA kept our positivity rate ten times lower than that of the state. As we progress through the spring semester, we are once again on track to remain at a low threshold of COVID cases. This success is a true testament to the teamwork and resilience of the MCLA community. It is a testament to our faculty and staff. Our superheroes.

While we continue to persevere and remain vigilant in keeping ourselves and one another safe during these challenging times, we also continue to keep a hopeful and ready eye on the future. Planning is earnestly underway for the fall 2021 semester, which we hope will bring a full return to the classroom and to campus. Vaccinating our faculty and staff colleagues in Phase II enhances our ability to plan for a full return to campus next fall.

It takes attention, care, and commitment to provide our students a path to becoming successful global citizens who make invaluable contributions to the Berkshires, to the New England region, and to the nation. In order for us to provide critical services for our students and the surrounding community, we must protect the workforce that cares for those students — a workforce deeply involved in our community and demonstrably committed to public health on campus.

James F. Birge, Ph.D. is the president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Guest columnist James F. Birge: Expand vaccine eligibility to higher education workforce
Guest columnist James F. Birge: Expand vaccine eligibility to higher education workforce
Newsrust - US Top News
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