Judith Ide was brimming with excitement as she sat in a line of folding metal chairs just outside the doors of a middle school gym Wednesday morning.
Describing herself as "thrilled, happy and pleased," the 71-year-old Virtual Academy teacher became the first Tulsa Public Schools employee to receive a COVID-19 vaccine through the district's coordination.
"I am so ready for this," she said excitedly as a Tulsa Health Department nurse prepped her arm for inoculation. Seconds later, the third-grade math teacher's eyes gleamed as she smiled behind her mask.
"Easy-peasy," she said.
Wednesday was the first day of vaccine distribution coordinated through TPS, THD and the Oklahoma Caring Van Program for TPS nurses, health assistants and employees 65 or older.
The group accounts for more than 500 TPS employees, and Superintendent Deborah Gist said the sites will be offered twice a week for the next two weeks to complete their primary vaccinations.
"This is a very big moment," Gist said before the inoculations began. "Trying to make decisions on behalf of our children ... knowing that distance learning is incredibly difficult for them and their families, but at the same time having an obligation and a dedication to keeping our teachers safe ... it’s been a terrible dilemma.
"Knowing that this is the first step toward having that behind us is huge."
After having to quash a phased reintroduction of in-person learning due to COVID-19 spread in the community in early December, TPS is set to try again with pre-kindergarten through third-grade students returning to in-person classes on Jan. 25. Fourth through 12th grades will follow in February.
In an effort to move and keep more students in in-person learning, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Tuesday a relaxation on quarantine policies within districts where mask use is required, allowing students who have been exposed to the virus to attend in-person classes as long as they're not showing symptoms.
Gist said Wednesday that TPS plans to stay the course of their current quarantine protocols, which are developed based on guidance from health professionals.
Since Monday, more than 1,600 new infections have been identified in Tulsa County residents, and a record 18 deaths were confirmed there in a single day of reporting Wednesday, pushing the seven-day rolling average of deaths per day near 7. The county is averaging 629 new cases daily as of Wednesday, and Oklahoma has led the nation in test positivity since mid-December.
Andrew Horowitz, a Carver Middle School library assistant, said he was pleased and impressed with the vaccination process TPS made available for employees in the state's Phase 2 sub-priority groups on Wednesday. It was easy to access and organized, he said, which boosted his confidence after he was a first "a little apprehensive" about receiving the shot.
In the past week, he said he has known of three people who died from the virus; an old schoolmate's parent, another's spouse and his doctor's parent.
"When you hear those kinds of stories, you don't want to become another statistic," the 66-year-old said. "You don't want to become another story for someone else to tell. Might as well take all the added benefits you can to protect yourself."
Those around you, too, he added. Horowitz said he decided to get the shot to protect his family and those he works with, whom he said he respects and admires too much to put at risk.
Kate Parperis, a registered nurse who serves the students of Hale High School as well as the staff, said that the vaccine will allow her to work with less concern.
“We have a lot of teachers that are older that have underlying conditions, and I’ve been so worried this entire year that my teachers or my staff are going to get sick," the 48-year-old said. "We’ve already had that impact our school this year. It was rough, and I just don’t want a repeat of that.”
A Hale High School support professional who had tested positive for COVID-19 died in early December, the district announced then, along with a bus driver who had also tested positive.
The two were the second and third COVID-19-related deaths of staff the district recorded in 2020. The first was Michael Angelo, an electrician who worked in the maintenance and plant operations department, in late October.
"I feel such a sense of relief," Parperis said after receiving the vaccine. "I really feel like this is how we're going to get kids back in the classroom.
"This is what needs to be done."