This March, Upper School (US) English Teacher Sarah Getchell stepped foot in a grocery store for the first time in a year, following her full vaccination.
“I never thought it would be awesome entering a grocery store, but it was,” she said, deeming the experience “delightful and luxurious.”
“Perusing aisles, smelling smells, and seeing other shoppers was so great,” Ms. Getchell said. “I forgot how to use the chip on my credit card to pay. It’s been 13 months since I’ve gone through a checkout line.”
Upon the return to school from spring break, 93% of faculty and staff had been fully vaccinated, according to Human Resources Director Tamah Rosker. Since then, the majority of formerly remote teachers have returned to teach in person, with few exceptions, and school will be transitioning to a new “All In” model starting May 3, Head of School Jen Price announced in an April 6 email to the community. The transition, Dr. Price said, is possible because of faculty vaccinations as well as permission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to change social distance requirements from 6 to 3 feet where needed.
Having spent the fall and winter teaching remotely, Ms. Getchell knew she would grab her first chance to get the vaccine, as it would release her from her Zoom lair, she said.
“I have much faith in science, including the local scientific community that was partially responsible for my Moderna vaccine,” she said. “I was on board for getting vaccinated from the beginning.”
Using a system that did not work for anybody but her on her own computer, Ms. Getchell has been able to obtain appointments for herself and over 50 other eligible faculty and faculty friends and family.
“I saved a link that allows you to bypass a waiting room, and I use that link to get right into the signup page rather than waiting forever until they let you in, which is something the web developer did to keep the site from crashing,” Ms. Getchell said.
Dr. Price said the school had originally hoped to set up a vaccine clinic with a group of other independent schools, but that plan didn’t succeed because Massachusetts wanted everybody to go through the specific state process.
In what she called a quick transition, the school pressed on by circulating a document with in-depth strategies for faculty and staff seeking vaccines and by organizing a group of Lower School (LS) faculty led by LS Learning Specialist and Learning Services Department Coordinator Beth Chiasson, LS Assistant Director Marissa Clark, and LS Language Arts Department Coordinator Leila Huff, who helped 139 other faculty and staff secure vaccine appointments.
“The effort involved lots of texts, open browsers, and late-night refreshing,” Ms. Huff said.
Other faculty members, like US Math and Computer Science Teacher Thomas Lowery, got their vaccine appointments independently.
Though eager to be vaccinated, Mr. Lowery said, he had nerves surrounding the needle and purposely sought out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as it only requires one dose.
“I’m like a big baby. I’m an adult man, but I hate shots, and it’s terrible,” he said.
In the end, he found the experience “super easy” and was grateful to be able to go to the barbershop for the first time in a year, he said.
“I felt sort of embarrassed that I went in because I was like, ‘Oh, I have all this hair that they have to deal with,’ and the barber was like, ‘No, this is fun: just cutting off a whole ton of hair.’ It was really weird just seeing it all over the place, but she said, ‘You are the third person that’s come in here whose hair has looked like it hasn’t been cut for a year.’”
In order to keep others safe, Mr. Lowery’s lifestyle has not changed much since his shot, he said.
“Even though I’m vaccinated, I know that most people aren’t, so there haven’t really been any changes other than feeling a little bit of ease being outside.”
Although vaccination was not open to people under 18 in Massachusetts until April 19, some students, who were already 18 or became eligible due to other factors, received vaccinations earlier. Nick Heisler ’22, eligible in late March due to his job at Target, said he was optimistic about the future the vaccine presented.
“I kind of knew that this was part of the next steps for everything to return back to normal, so I definitely wanted to take part,” Nick said. “I was like, ‘Sign me up as soon as possible.’”
Nick received both shots and described the process as simple and efficient.
“Everything was kind of right there for you at the administration site,” he said.
“They asked me a few questions, they gave me a shot—it took two minutes from when I got into the store, and then I sat there for another 15 minutes just to make sure I had no reactions or anything like that.”
Hattie Grant ’21, also fully vaccinated, said she recognizes her life cannot drastically change until a greater portion of the population is vaccinated.
“I got the vaccine early enough that, as much as it was exciting for me, it didn’t open up as many doors as I wanted it to because the general population had not been vaccinated,” she said. “I want to go walking around without a mask or go and eat in restaurants or hang out with people, but I can’t because other people aren’t vaccinated. Hopefully, that will be soon.”
Hattie did experience a sense of relief upon being fully vaccinated, she said.
“I feel like I can breathe again, and, in a lot of ways, I feel so much less terrified,” she said. “I have a few of my friends who are fully vaccinated, and that means that we get to be in each other’s houses. That’s huge. And then, also, it allows me to see my family who have been vaccinated, which is super important to me.”
US Mathematics and Computer Science Teacher Hannah Saris said she felt a stronger sense of comfort teaching her students after being fully vaccinated.
“I definitely do have more peace of mind helping students and going within 6 feet of them,” she said. “I’m fine with that now because I know that I am pretty much immune, and I’m very much looking forward to when the community has that herd immunity.”
Ms. Saris envisions that the classroom environment will become more interactive once more community members have been vaccinated.
“For the past school year, we’ve just been sitting on our butts in our seats for really long periods of time,” she said. “I think learning is more effective when we can move, and as more people get vaccinated, we can be more comfortable interacting with each other physically. And I think that will go a long way in terms of the learning experiences for my students.”
US Science Teacher Paige Kemezis said she saw vaccines as only a piece of the puzzle of comfort and safety, along with masks, distance guidelines, and testing.
“I think vaccination is going to play a comfort role for people,” she said. “But then there are variants of COVID-19 that are different and not tested against this vaccine. So why is the U.S. as a whole feeling so comfortable with a vaccine that’s not used for these variants and potentially dropping other safety measures? While I am worried about COVID, in general, I think the masks and distancing are doing everything they need to do.”
US Chief Operating and Financial Officer Tara Gohlmann, who has been co-chairing the school’s Health and Safety Committee put together as part of the school’s reopening plan, noted that the school’s low number of positive cases has been an important factor in making the “All In” model possible.
“We met with our consulting physician, and he was so impressed with our number of cases,” Ms. Gohlmann said. “He was looking at the dashboard, and he was amazed, really, at how well the community has done. And that really is a testament to how everyone sort of pulled together.”
As of April 24, the school’s online COVID-19 dashboard showed that since August 30, school testing of employees and students has detected 24 positive cases, with an additional 59 positive cases logged as self-reported.
US Director Geoff Theobald identified vaccinations as one step in the right direction, not the final destination.
“Unfortunately I’m not quite ready to cheer, ‘Yay, now we can all take off our masks!’ I think when you recognize all the safety precautions we have been following this year and how we interact every day, vaccination feels like it’s another important step on the way toward feeling freer and feeling more capable of being out and about with less worry. But realistically, I don’t think we are going to be completely worry-free for a good while longer.”
Still, Mr. Theobald said, getting vaccinated is an important step toward normalcy.
“I’ve seen lots of people, myself included, actually get a little emotional around the idea of getting vaccinated,” he said. “Navigating COVID has been a challenging and scary time, and vaccines are something that feels hopeful and positive.”
At the time this paper went to press, every member of the community over 16 years old was eligible to receive a vaccination. Unvaccinated readers can preregister for the shot and sign up to be notified about available appointments at mass.gov/covid-19-vaccine.