Employees with Idaho’s higher education institutions have not been included in the state’s vaccination plan as of yet, and the local teachers union at the University of Idaho is ringing alarm bells.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised states should include “those who work in the education sector” in phase 1B of state programs, Idaho’s plan only includes instructions to vaccinate teachers and staff working in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. While many working in elementary and secondary education in the state have already received their first shot, employees in higher education have yet to be placed in any prioritization at all.

In a letter sent to the UI community late last month, the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers decried the move.

“We believe that this choice is unjust and dangerous. College and university employees in Idaho are working in person, in many cases without a choice, and they should therefore be recognized as essential employees,” the letter read. “At UI, classes have been operating in-person since the beginning of the academic year. Faculty have been teaching (face-to-face) and Hy-flex, and administrative and support staff have been required to work regularly on campus.”

The letter urged members to reach out to local legislators and Idaho’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee to voice their concerns.

AFT member and UI associate professor Ryanne Pilgeram said she is hopeful the exclusion of employees working in state universities and colleges is an easily corrected oversight. However, she pointed out vaccines take several weeks before they are fully effective, meaning university staff must be vaccinated soon if they are to be prepared to teach fully in person for the 2021 fall semester.

“If we’re not all vaccinated by July 1, then it’s not safe for faculty to be back fully in the classrooms in the fall,” she said. “That’s a lot of people, when you think about how many people are in higher education, to have vaccinated by July 1 if they’re not prioritized.”

UI professor and local AFT President Luigi Boschetti said they are particularly worried about new, more infectious variants of COVID-19. He said even measures the UI has in place that have been largely successful at preventing outbreaks in in-person classrooms last fall may be less effective once these varieties arrive in Idaho.

Boschetti noted there is sometimes a disconnect between guidelines at the federal and state levels and said he and other union members simply want to make sure that CVAC is fully aware of the changes made to CDC prioritization advisories.

“I don’t think it was intentional punishment of higher education but now we want to bring it to the attention of the committee and our elected representatives,” Boschetti said. “This is the moment to correct before things get too advanced and too settled, and then we are in the scenario that we believe is not in anybody’s interest.”

Local legislators say they have taken an interest in the issue but ultimately have little sway over vaccine prioritization in the state, which is left largely to the governor with recommendations from the vaccine advisory committee. State Sen. David Nelson, D-Moscow, said he supports local AFT members’ bid to be included in the vaccine schedule. However, he and State Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, agreed the job of deciding who gets jabbed first is no easy task.

Troy said Idaho has also been struggling to get its fair share of vaccine doses, with some of the lowest numbers per population in the nation, creating an additional challenge for the prioritization process.

“I think everybody’s just doing their best,” Troy said. “It’s just really unfortunate that they didn’t consider our faculty and staff at the universities as a really important linchpin to keeping the economy open and getting these kids through on time.

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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