“It is a tough time when I compare these last two years to the past 20. It does not change the fact I love what I do. I’m glad I’m the person in the seat helping our school and community navigate this issue, and someone has to do it.”
Rural Schools Collaborative has had the privilege of talking with rural superintendents whose districts hosted COVID-19 vaccination clinics for students, staff, and the larger community. These efforts have shown that, as central hubs in a rural community, schools are in a good position to host vaccination drives. Aside from the convenience of their physical location at times, rural schools are places of familiarity for area residents which can assuage anxieties surrounding the shot. Moreover, district staff and faculty deeply care for students and families alike, and will do all it takes to ensure all community members are supported. Hosting COVID-19 vaccine drives is yet another way, in a long tradition of hosting local events, in which rural schools uplift and sustain the vitality of their communities.
RSC had the privilege to hear from a rural district in west-central Illinois to spotlight their perspective on the importance and necessity of hosting vaccine clinics.
Dr. Mark Twomey is the superintendent for Macomb School District, in Macomb, Illinois. Although he remembers wanting to be an educator since he was young, serving as a district superintendent was not Twomey’s first career. Having spent 17 years in the private sector before jumping over to the education field, Twomey recalls being recruited to volunteer coach for his son’s 5th grade basketball team as a pivotal moment in his life:
“I went out to Western Illinois University, checked out a how-to coaching book, and studied how to be a 5th grade basketball coach. I did that for two years, and at the end of the second year, I realized I’m doing the wrong thing for a living. The thrill and experience I got out of teaching those young kids basketball was exhilarating. Years earlier I had wanted to be a teacher, and then I realized now was the time.”
Twomey spent the next 15 years studying on weekends to enter his second career, driven by a passion to care for and serve students. “I’ve never looked back,” Twomey says, “I have a job that I can’t wait to do when I get up in the morning. While I had a good job before…compare that to seeing the impact you make in a young person’s life.”
The global pandemic has been a severe challenge for all in the education sector, leading many to leave the field altogether. Twomey recognizes the past two years have been exceedingly difficult: “It is a tough time when I compare these last two years to the past 20. It does not change the fact I love what I do. I’m glad I’m the person in the seat helping our school and community navigate this issue, and someone has to do it.”
That commitment to care for students, school, and community drove Twomey and his collaborators in the Macomb School District and at the McDonough County Health Department to host multiple vaccine clinics at the school. He shares that even though conversations about vaccines are a contentious issue, in the end he’s “responsible for the safety of 2,000 kids, and if I make a decision and I’m wrong, what’s the outcome going to be? I’m not willing to take the risk on the health of my children. Everybody has the right to choose, but then we have to have protocols in place as school leaders that provide a safe environment for all children, parents, and staff members.”
The push for a clinic began earlier this year. Twomey recalls, “When we first talked to the health department, collectively we said we ought to have one at the school. Then after 12- to 18-year-olds could get vaccinated, we said we need to do it again; and we offered it during the school day when kids are already here.”
Due to those first handful of clinics, Twomey reports that up to 80% of eligible students have received the vaccine. Likewise, 80% of faculty and staff have had at least one dose of the shot, and certified staff alone are around 90% vaccinated.
With the success of these clinics, Twomey and his team began to think up additional, innovative ways to host subsequent clinics in order to reach more people. He shares enthusiastically that “because our football games are packed and bring in people from the smaller communities around, now we’re going to do another clinic during a football game.”
Much like his fellow superintendents in Missouri and Wisconsin, Twomey says that the hardest part of hosting these clinics was not in setting them up, but in the messaging surrounding the vaccines: “As much as we try to communicate, people still get confused…There’s a lot of misinformation out there and it’s confusing, that’s why we’re going to continue sharing factual information. Here’s the rules, our job is to enforce it, and we’re going to treat kids equally.”
The district's capacity to send mass messaging has helped in this effort. Through Macomb’s mass notification system, Twomey estimates the district has the ability to reach over 5,000 households in the area. He underscores that the district messages are “mostly about pushing factual stuff out there. We see ourselves as conduits of putting out the facts, letting people know there’s opportunities to get vaccinated. In these messages, I let them know what we’re doing and why. Here’s the clinic, here’s what we’re doing, and here’s how we have to treat vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals differently according to state rules.”
While the response from the community “has been mostly positive,” Twomey does not hide the fact that there has been “strong feedback from parents on both sides about school mandates and rules.” Thinking further on it, Twomey responds, “I get it, you’re talking about people’s children and nothing creates a more hot topic than that. They all believe in what’s best for their kids. That’s why we hosted these clinics at the school. We want to provide a place that’s easy, accessible, that families are used to being in, and that they’re comfortable with.”
The district’s efforts so far to share information, provide vaccination opportunities, and make sure everyone remains safe and supported leaves Twomey optimistic about the new school year. He feels that they’re “in a really great shape. My biggest worry though is my young elementary kids who have not had the opportunity to get vaccinated yet. My hope moving forward is that we’re able to identify what protocols need to be in place to provide a safe environment, and that we implement them with fidelity.”
Twomey’s experience, and that of the whole Macomb School District, reveals the strength and impact of community-level action. Rural schools are perfectly positioned to serve as stewards of the safety and wellbeing of our hometowns, and vaccines clinics reveal another way in which they continue to fill this role. Twomey concludes: “It is easy to get caught up in the political message, and it’s difficult to separate oneself from it because we all have beliefs. I would just encourage all my colleagues to look past the political issue and look to the students we serve. If we err, err on the side of the safety of our children, and each superintendent has to decide for themselves what that is."
RSC thanks our Illinois Hub for connecting us with these powerful stories. To learn more about our advocacy work for the rural vaccine uptake or for additional resources on how to host your own clinic, see our previous items here.