Puerto Rico completes teacher and school staff vaccination ahead of schedule
Juan Jose Rodriguez, an environmental sciences teacher in the Puerto Rico Public Education system, receives the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine on January 21, 2021 as part of Puerto Rico’s drive to vaccinate school staff.
Starting December 15, 2020, as part of Phase 1A, the local government opened vaccination eligibility to healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. Four weeks into the vaccination process, the local government expanded vaccination eligibility and prioritization of pre-K to grade 12 educators and school staff as part of Phase 1B. This announcement included the ambitious goal of administering first doses to more than 60,000 school staff within six weeks. This was an important commitment to help create safe conditions so schools could return students to classrooms.
The Puerto Rico Department of Health partnered with the territory’s National Guard, local universities, healthcare centers, and local government agencies to rapidly establish multiple vaccination centers across the island and quickly get COVID-19 shots into educators’ arms. For this important mission, eight dedicated vaccination sites were established, and 12,000 vaccine doses were all set for the next six consecutive weeks of vaccinating school employees. On January 18, 2021, vaccination of school staff began, and within the first two weeks, 16,100 educators received their first dose.
The local Department of Education started preparing its staff and school nurses for this moment early in the process. The school district conducted surveys to find out the number of employees that wanted to be vaccinated. In addition, over 900 school nurses were trained in COVID-19 vaccine administration and assisted in coordinating and administering vaccinations. Working with the Department of Education was key to conduct outreach to teachers and staff through school districts and to schedule vaccination appointments for thousands of teachers and school staff in record time.
Teachers completing the COVID-19 vaccine screening and consent form before getting vaccinated at the Mayagüez site. Image shared by Puerto Rico National Guard Public Affairs Office.
“COVID-19 vaccine is something we have been looking forward to after a hard year,” says Juan Jose Rodriguez, a high school teacher in the Puerto Rico Montessori system. “We belong to the classrooms, and we need to help our students to come back to school safely. Our community of educators feels proud to show our students we are doing our part to change the course of this pandemic.”
National Guard troops worked around the clock on logistics, distribution, and vaccine administration to complete Puerto Rico’s milestone of vaccinating all teachers with their first dose in six weeks.
“My greatest satisfaction has been to know that I am protecting the health of teachers and the entire community,” says Specialist Melvin Fonseca, a combat medic from the Puerto Rico Army National Guard and a teacher in his civilian life. “Creating a healthier environment in schools across PR has been a very special assignment. It is great to see all these teachers coming in here to get vaccinated. Some of them are former colleagues and students. I know that I am protecting them as I did in the classroom.”
At the beginning of March, President Biden asked U.S. states and territories to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers to ensure children could return to school quickly and safely. By the end of March, 98% of school staff in Puerto Rico were fully vaccinated.
“Most of the school staff wanted to get vaccinated,” says Dr. Iris Cardona, who leads the Puerto Rico Department of Health’s COVID-19 vaccination program. “It was challenging given that vaccine supply was still limited at that time. But thanks to multisectoral efforts, the Department of Health was able to achieve this important mission.”