Trustees receiving vaccinations with teachers raises eyebrows

JACKSON — At a Feb. 20 teacher mass vaccination clinic a few attendees spurred consternation among some.

School board trustees received jabs along with teachers, paraprofessionals, janitors and bus drivers, raising questions about propriety. Word spread, and community members contacted the Teton County Health Department and the News&Guide to note their concerns.

Exploring that question reveals how residents are navigating the vaccine rollout and how even a tightly administered program can still spark concerns about fairness and jumping the line for shots, which have become a prerequisite for a return to normalcy. In the case of trustees, the situation also demonstrates how the priority group system can make decisions around vaccination fraught or confusing.

Under the Teton County Health Department’s priority vaccination process for the 1a and 1b groups, employers provided the Health Department lists of everyone who qualified. Staff and volunteers then used those to register people at vaccination clinics.

Teton County School District No. 1 included trustees on the list it provided to the Health Department.

“When it became clear that there was going to be plenty of vaccine and they were doing the larger clinic, we basically put it out to everybody who had a TCSD email address,” Communications Director Charlotte Reynolds told the News&Guide.

They did so for a couple of reasons. One, the Wyoming Department of Health guidance for 1b says “teachers and support staff” are eligible. Two, administrators were informed that other districts in Wyoming had opted to include school board members in their lists.

The News&Guide was able to reach only three school districts before press time. Representatives from Sweetwater No. 1 and Big Horn No. 1 school districts said they included trustees who wanted the shots. Not so in Lincoln County. Amanda Welch, board secretary for Lincoln County School District No. 2, said her board did not receive shots because her district vaccinated only “board-approved staff positions.”

Teton County administrators decided, Reynolds said, that because of what was happening around the state, board members would be included since they “support” local education, even though they are volunteer elected officials, not staff. However, state and county health department officials told the News&Guide that it was “not the intention” of the educator priority group to include trustees.

The situation is emblematic of the complicated nature of the vaccine rollout across Wyoming. To offer flexibility for counties with varied population sizes and uptake rates, the state Health Department’s requirements, while extensive, still have gray areas.

Board members are neither explicitly included nor excluded from the state documents. With the statewide context of other districts including trustees, Reynolds said, Teton County administrators did the same.

“The language was very general,” Reynolds said. “TCSD would not have intentionally disregarded directives or guidance, you know, had it been very specific.”

Another local elected board in Jackson, the St. John’s Health Board of Trustees, took a different tack. Health care workers were included in the 1a priority groups, though the language regarding the various health care subgroups was more specific than the description of educators in 1b.

Hospital trustees opted to wait until their individual subgroups came up.

“There’s a clear understanding that as board members we don’t get those kinds of special privileges, and we don’t ask for them,” Chair Sue Critzer said.

Two school board members — Betsy Carlin and Janine Bay Teske — confirmed that they did go to the Feb. 20 clinic. Trustee Bill Scarlett said “it is none of your business” when asked whether he did, calling it a “personal health matter.”

Teske was eligible to receive a vaccine before teachers. But she was out of town when her earlier priority group came up, so the county Health Department told her to go to the Feb. 20 clinic. Carlin took the district up on the offer, but she would have been eligible at the Feb. 27 clinic because she works in child care.

Still, she said she felt “guilty” and second-guessed her decision after questions arose.

“Do I wish I had waited for the second week of teacher vaccinations? Sure,” Carlin said. “But I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms.”

Other trustees received their vaccinations elsewhere or are still waiting. Kate Mead qualified for a vaccine as a food producer shortly after teachers. Alan Brumsted, who was eligible before teachers because of his age, described getting his vaccination during one of the board’s recent meetings.

One trustee got swept up in the backlash to the board members being vaccinated at the Feb. 20 clinic. Once people reported to the Health Department that trustees had been included, its staff went through the list for the Feb. 27 clinic and took them off, but Jennifer Zung was the only one who had signed up for that day.

Zung had registered for one of the last slots in the second teacher clinic, she said, hoping that would give educators and staff the chance to sign up first. As a new trustee, she has been visiting the schools to learn the district, and she said being vaccinated would make that effort safer for her and people in the buildings.

Both she and board Chair Keith Gingery are still waiting for their shots. Gingery was aware the district was offering vaccinations to trustees, he said, but chose to wait until whatever later group he qualifies for is eligible.

There is hope on the horizon for Zung, who said Monday that she fits into the age bracket opened under the 1c priority groups.

“My card is up,” she said. “I haven’t gotten called yet or emailed, so I’m just kind of waiting.”