Spring, it is often said, is the season of hope and new beginnings.
Perhaps then it was fitting that on Saturday, the first day of spring, 450 Newarkers received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a community vaccination clinic, providing a light at the end of the tunnel after more than a year of uncertainty and isolation.
“It’s a relief,” said George Timko, as he and his wife received their vaccinations at the Tarbiyah School on Old Baltimore Pike. “I’m glad we’re at the point we can get these vaccines.”
Staffed by volunteers from the Delaware National Guard and the Delaware Medical Reserve Corps, Saturday’s event at the Tarbiyah School was one of several community-based vaccine clinics held in the Newark area over the past couple weeks. Previous events included ones at Newark Senior Center, Pilgrim Baptist Church and Holy Angels Church.
While the large, state-organized vaccination events at Dover International Speedway and elsewhere – which can administer thousands of shots in a single weekend – get most of the attention, the community-based sites play an important role as well, especially for harder-to-reach populations, Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long said.
“It’s where people trust one another,” Hall-Long said, explaining some people may be more eager to get vaccinated when a faith leader or community group they know and trust is involved.
Community-based sites are also more convenient, she said.
“When people are in their own community, sometimes they can walk to the site,” she said.
A registered nurse who teaches public health courses at the University of Delaware, Hall-Long was among the health professionals volunteering to administer shots Saturday, giving some attendees the only-in-Delaware experience of being vaccinated by the lieutenant governor.
“It’s really important when we’re in the midst of a pandemic, everyone’s hands are needed on deck,” said Hall-Long, who has administered hundreds of shots since December.
The community group hosting the vaccine clinic is responsible for recruiting people to be vaccinated, subject to the state’s eligibility rules.
The Tarbiyah School and the adjacent Masjid Isa Ibn-e-Maryam mosque spread the word to their members and families, as well as to residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. A link to sign up spread quickly online as well, and the crowd represented a wide cross-section of New Castle County.
More than 1,500 people signed up to be vaccinated there, according to Naveed Baqir, who helped coordinate the event. Originally planning for 300 vaccinations, the school was able to increase it to 450.
It plans to vaccinate another 500 people from the waiting list next weekend and has offered to continue hosting vaccine clinics as often as the state can accommodate.
“We’re very involved in the community at large,” said Dr. Saleem Khan, president of the First State Islamic Foundation, which runs the school and the mosque. “Anytime there’s a need, we start working with the state authorities.”
The Tarbiyah School is no stranger to community service during the pandemic. After the state closed schools in March 2020, volunteers from Tarbiyah mobilized to design a meal delivery service to ensure that local kids all over northern Delaware don’t go hungry. In the last year, the school has delivered more than two million meals and plans to continue the program through at least September.
“A school cannot exist in isolation. A school is like a living organization and representation of the community that it is in,” Principal Dr. Amna Latif said. “We are showing our future generations how to care for neighbors and be a part of the solution whenever there is a problem.”
The vaccination clinics are part of that work, she said.
“As we see light at the end of the tunnel with regards to the vaccines, we open up our doors to get everyone who wants a vaccine, get vaccinated,” she said. “We will continue to provide help and support to our neighbors, children, and families in need in whatever way we can. We thank our elected officials for their support of our work and we thank our neighbors and communities for their trust in us.”
Baqir said it’s important for the school and mosque to be involved in the vaccination effort.
“It creates that trust and overcomes any fears people might have,” he said. “I can’t imagine members of our community would have gotten vaccinated in these numbers.”
Salena Akter, whose daughter attends Tarbiyah, heard about the vaccination event through the school. She and her mother, Nurn Nahar, both came to get their shot.
“I was a little skeptical, but after the shot, I feel great,” Akter said, adding she is looking forward to the freedom that will come once they are fully vaccinated in five weeks. “As a family, we can have more get-togethers. It will be good to be together more without masks.”
Some Newark schools are dealing with the double-edged sword of a shortage of substitute teachers combined with an increase in need as mandatory quarantines force teachers to stay home.
According to Christina School District Superintendent Dr. Dan Shelton, the main reason for the reduction in available substitutes is that the retired teachers who make up the bulk of the substitute pool are no longer working because they are at high risk for COVID-19. Christina has had to contract more companies that provide substitute services than before the pandemic.
“If you’re a retired teacher, up until recently, you probably were not vaccinated,” said Shelton. “Potentially you were in one of those high-risk categories and you didn’t want to put yourself at risk for the very few dollars that substitutes make.”
Shelton said a substitute shortage already existed before the pandemic, leading Delaware to pass a law to allow college students in a teacher education program to earn the same pay for substituting as college graduates do, but the pandemic made things even worse.
Substitutes often have to supervise an in-person class while a teacher teaches virtually. Teachers can no longer “tough it out” through a minor illness, because what appears to be a cold could be COVID-19.
“It’s not a Christina issue, it’s not a Delaware issue, it’s a national issue,” said Shelton.
Newark Charter School lost about a third of its substitute pool, according to Assistant Principal Nick Russo. Unlike Christina, NCS hires substitutes in-house, with each of the school’s three buildings maintaining its own pool of substitutes, instead of hiring an outside company.
“A number of people who are on our sub lists decided not to sub this year,” Russo said. “So we were starting off with a deficit.”
The school’s board recruited parents and other community members to be substitutes. Russo said the strategy worked, and the school added several substitutes. The school has the same standard requirements as other school districts, requiring at least a high school diploma or a GED to work as a substitute.
“We have had a number of people stepping up to help us out. Some of them are alumni, which is nice,” said Russo. “We talked to them or interviewed them, they get the background check and a TB test, and then they can help us. We’re in a better spot than we were, but we’re certainly not quite where we were pre-pandemic.”
All three buildings at NCS are currently accepting applications for substitute teachers.
Meanwhile, other local schools have been able to avoid a substitute shortage.
Las Américas ASPIRA Academy uses private substitute companies but has not suffered from a lack of substitutes.
Substitutes at the language-immersion charter school often need specialized training because K-5 classes are fully bilingual. The school launched its last phase of re-opening in the beginning of March, bringing in 550 students for hybrid learning.
Head of School José Avilés credited the constant communication between administration, teaching staff and parents for a low COVID-19 infection rate. Communication, along with ASPIRA’s strict regulations around who is allowed in the building, reduced the need for substitutes compared to other schools.
“Something that I don’t know if any other district is doing, is that we implemented a policy where we ask the students and the staff members to test every two weeks and provide negative COVID results,” said Avilés. “That way, the people that are coming into the building, we already know that they have not been infected.”
For the Newark Center for Creative Learning, the idea of substitutes is a relatively new concept. The private school is so small with such a unique program that it’s often difficult to just invite a substitute for the day unless the substitute is a retired teacher or some other person who has experience with NCCL’s teaching style.
“Our teaching staff is really small, when we’ve been doing hybrid learning, everyone’s outside and everybody’s been really safe,” NCCL Administrative Director Lauren Evans said. “None of our teachers have needed to quarantine during our hybrid learning time, so we didn’t require any substitutes.”