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Colorado teachers became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in the state’s 1B.2 phase, and educators throughout the valley have been able to get their first dose.

Now, as Lake County School District (LCSD) explores the possibility of opening up more in-person education options, teachers and educators appear grateful for the vaccines and hopeful about the rest of this school year and the start of the next.

Jena Finch, a learning specialist and special education teacher at Lake County Intermediate School (LCIS), got her first dose of the vaccine in February alongside many of her coworkers.

“I felt really supported by the district because it was offered in such a way where it didn’t feel like there was any pressure to go one way or the other,” she says. “After doing some research, having quite a bit of family that works in the healthcare field, I felt that I was very privileged to have the opportunity to get it so early and decided to sign up for it.”

Finch feels there’s already been a change. The district is feeling safer and more comfortable having more students in buildings and has begun talks about “going green,” which would allow full attendance, before the end of the school year. The district is currently running on a hybrid model, with students split between classes and other programs.

Jena Finch, a special education teacher at Lake County Intermediate School, shows off her new clear-paneled mask. Courtesy of Jena Finch.

Prior to the roll-out of vaccination, Finch says she had moments of concern heading into the school each day.

“There’s a lot of students that are just not successful with mask-wearing for a multitude of reasons, but I’ve definitely felt nervous to go to school and felt at risk,” she says. “The vaccine does give me hope and a little more confidence to come into education and continue to do my job as best I can. I feel very lucky to have the opportunity but also very lucky to be able to show up to a job that’s really important to me and support students who really need it.”

The hybrid system brought lots of students’ needs to light, especially when it comes to digital equity and access to academic and social-emotional supports for students.

“We really see in our rural community that it’s so challenging for certain families and students to even have a virtual option where they can be at home with consistent internet,” Finch explains, “and then to add another layer on top of that of special education services. We’re really living in a non-equitable educational world right now, and I think that’s been the most difficult thing to see.”

The district’s move back to full attendance will be a big indicator of how things are progressing in the county with both vaccinations and case counts. Finch says she feels that staff should feel comfortable sharing, or not sharing, whether they’ve been vaccinated on their own and that, overall, things are moving forward.

“I think it’ll be really telling, whether we go green or not and the number of staff who receive the vaccine,” she says. “Obviously it’s going in the right direction and we all want kids to be in the building and to teach in person, and I think that’s definitely the ultimate goal for all of the staff here at LCIS.”

Finch sees the teamwork that comes with making full attendance and in-person learning a reality as a key aspect of the education experience for both students and staff. For her, the vaccine and proper protocols are another piece of the puzzle.

“This vaccine is just another building block of working as a team and working in a community,” she explains. “Each individual can make their own decisions and do what’s correct for them, but ultimately we’re all working together for the same goal. So it’s reminding ourselves that we’re in it together and that students are always the most important.”

As for the rest of the school year and the start of the next, Finch is looking forward to getting back to normal, but she hopes schools will take what they’ve learned with them during pandemic education.

“I’m really looking forward to taking all the things we’ve learned in education this year and applying them. Even when we are back in green when we’re at 100 percent capacity, because I think we’ve learned a lot of really valuable lessons,” she says. “The top of the list for me is students’ social-emotional health and putting it on the forefront. I think we were a little forced to do that this year and to make sure students’ needs were met, and it’ll be a nice reminder to always focus on that before academics.”