HOLYOKE – For months Digna Almonte has found it difficult to keep six feet distance from the young children she works with every day because they need hands-on help and don’t understand they can spread COVID-19.
On Saturday Almonte, a teaching assistant who works with children from kindergarten to grade two at Donahue School, joined about 600 of her fellow educators to get vaccinated at a Saturday clinic held by Holyoke Health.
“I work one-on-one with kids so it is good that I feel healthy so I can provide a better service to them and I can be healthy for my own family,” she said. “If everyone gets vaccinated, we have a better chance to go back to a normal world.”
With elementary schools preparing to return to full-time, five-days-a-week classes on April 5 and the state declaring teachers are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, the Holyoke Health Center decided to step in and hold a weekend clinic to get as many educators vaccinated as possible, said Jay Breines, chief executive officer.
Some teachers have been working in-person with children who are considered high-risk and would have difficulty learning remotely as early as September and some are teaching under a hybrid system that has children attending in-person classes some days and then switching to remote education other days.
Holyoke Health Center was designated as one of the 250 centers in the country to receive federal vaccines directly from the government because Holyoke, was designated an underserved community due to residents disproportionately affected by COVID-19, Breines said.
After teachers were put in the priority category for vaccines by the state, Breines said he was able to secure 600 doses for school staff because he said it is vital to get city children, many of whom the center serves, back in the classroom.
“I want my kids to graduate with a good education so they can get good jobs, go to college and get out of poverty,” he said. “I want them in classrooms. Kids need to be in school for their health.”
Janet Morales, an English as a Second Language teacher at Holyoke High School North, has had some students in-person since September and said it is more effective to be teaching her students in the classroom, especially those who have limited English because it is hard to see gestures and other things over the computer.
She said she is hoping to have even more students in-person soon.
“I’m looking out for my safety and the safety of my students,” she said after receiving the vaccination.
Breines said Holyoke Health Center learned they would be eligible for 600 doses of the Moderna vaccine from U.S. Richard E. Neal’s staff several weeks ago. He then rushed through the logistics of setting up a one-day clinic at William J. Dean Technical High School that would serve school staff.
The about 1,000 school staff – including custodians, cafeteria workers and vice principals – were sent a survey asking if they wanted a vaccine and slightly more than 600 responded to sign up for the clinic. Others declined the shot or had already received one, said Lori Lewicki, chief pharmacy officer at Holyoke Health Center.
The Center also included staff at parochial and private schools in the city, he said
They then made appointments, giving each educator a time to show up between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. On April 26 those same educators will return at the same time for their second dose, she said.
The school nurses and a Board of Health nurse joined by personnel at Holyoke Health Center to ensure there were enough people to administer the vaccinations and all paperwork was completed before Saturday, said Cynthia Carbone, director of health, wellness and nursing for Holyoke Public Schools.
“We want to make it easier for our staff and what better way than to offer them a COVID vaccination clinic,” she said.
Breines said his biggest concern was that the promised doses would not arrive and he would have to cancel the clinic. He said he went back-and-forth with Neal’s office to make sure the clinic was possible until mid-week when the doses arrived.
Neal visited the clinic on Saturday, talking with acting School Superintendent Anthony Soto, School Committee Chairman Devin Sheehan and many of the teachers who were being vaccinated.
“This is about community. No one is abandoned, no one is left behind,” Neal said.
In making a public statement, Neal said President Biden’s stimulus package includes $50 billion for testing and reminded people that they should not be lulled into a false sense of security and to get tested if they feel ill or may be exposed to someone with the virus to ensure they do not spread it.
“I am thrilled to see these federal resources in action here in Holyoke today,” he said. “Community health centers like Holyoke have been on the frontlines of this pandemic for over a year now and the work that they do to ensure that our populations are vaccinated does not go without notice.