The UNISVerse Interview: Dr. Brenner on the Vaccine


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After a year of COVID-19 disruptions, the promise of a long-awaited vaccine brought hope to many during the holiday season. With the COVID-19 infection rates continuing to rise in many parts of the world — including right here at UNIS — vaccine distribution is increasingly necessary. Questions have risen as to how the vaccine will be distributed and how teachers, who have done extraordinary work by allowing learning to take place even under such difficult circumstances, will get it. After discussing the COVID-19 vaccine in my IB Economics class, I wrote to Dr. Brenner to ask what UNIS is doing to get vaccines for teachers. With the help of Dr. Temnick, we put together these questions about the COVID-19 vaccine and the lessons learned in 2020, which he kindly answered on Zoom. Since this interview was conducted, Governor Cuomo has made vaccines available to teachers.

What is UNIS doing either by itself or with other New York schools to get the vaccine to its teachers?

The only thing I can tell you that we’ve done at this point is reached out to the organization that provides the regular flu shots for the teachers. We’ve reached out to them to see if we can become a priority on the list. Beyond that, I think there is distribution based on government guidance. I’m not sure we’re going to be able to circumvent that.

Has UNIS volunteered to be a site for vaccine distribution for its own community or others?

I’m not sure. It seems to be logical, but also seems it could be a huge disruption. If we had a lot of additional space and I could take a second gymnasium and assign that. I would do it in a minute. It’s just that we’re space strapped so it’s a little more complicated. From a mission-driven perspective it makes great sense, but can we do it without impacting the day-to-day function of the school? I don’t think so.

What are the scenarios in which you could see us returning to completely in person school?

As soon as they lift the restriction on social distancing we’re back in school. Really, what’s keeping us in hybrid is a function of social distancing law, where we can’t bring people back who are not socially distanced.

If we were to get a “date” as a first vaccine for teachers followed by the second shot 21 days later, would you consider allowing vulnerable teachers to teach remotely to remain safe in these final weeks of January leading up to this game-changing event?

It may be optimistic to think that teachers are going to be vaccinated in the month of January but I hope for all our sake that’s the case. I also don’t know if that’s the key at this point to unlock person-to-person testing. It’s a little bit unclear to me about the guidance around that because teachers are not the only ones who spread the virus, so the assumption that teachers will come back to school having gotten the shots and by extension everyone can come back to school doesn’t speak to the fact that students can also get the virus — so it’s a little unclear at this point what it is going to look like. In truth, I hope it’s sooner, but my gut says that we’ll probably be some form of hybrid through the end of the year and September will be the spot where we’ll start again. I’m planning that way. It’s very simple to plan to bring everyone back, we all know how to do that, we’re all rooting for that, but it’s the ability to sustain ourselves in a hybrid model is really what I’m trying to figure out going forward. I hope the vaccine is the answer in the short term. I hope it happens faster and guidance lifts and people say we can reopen the restaurants and reopen the gyms and allow students to come back without social distancing. That would be great.

Will the vaccine be a requirement for all members of the community?

Probably not. I think that the required vaccines that occur are mandated by the state. You can’t come to school without certain vaccines in place. If the state says that that’s where we are, we will obviously comply. At this point, it isn’t our intention to say you have to get a vaccine, that’s probably overstepping our bounds, but I think we will be encouraging people to take it.

What have you learned in this last year with what you’ve had to deal with?

You can’t communicate too much if you’re the head of a school. I think people really appreciate being informed and I think the community has proven to be resilient, which is a great thing.

Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?

We spent all summer planning to make the school safe, whether it be plastic shields, protocols for entering and exiting, or rules for walking in the hallways. I think it worked and I think people come to school thinking it’s a safe environment. I think what I’ve missed is that we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how we could take care of people emotionally and how stressful this was for people. We had to do that a little bit more on the fly. Interesting, where other people were trying to catch up to us as it applied to the healthy and safety measures we put in place, we would have been well suited to have planned significantly around the emotional strain put on the students, teachers, and parents. This is not an easy model to navigate and being home every other day is a pain. You can do it, because you know tomorrow you’re going to school, but it’s still a pain.