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story.lead_photo.caption A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Five recent Missouri Teachers of the Year have asked teachers be prioritized immediately to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, but the state is sticking with its current vaccination plan.

Essential employees — including all teachers and school staff — are included in Phase 1B, Tier 3 of Missouri's COVID-19 vaccination plan. This also includes people who provide contract services to schools, such as substitute teachers, bus drivers and therapists.

Phase 1B, Tier 1 and Tier 2 were activated last month. Tier 1 includes first responders and emergency personnel, and Tier 2 includes high-risk individuals.

Tiers 1 and 2 supersede Tier 3, so school nurses and school staff older than 65 or who suffer from certain underlying conditions are currently eligible for the vaccine.

There is not yet a clear timeline as to when the state will transition to Tier 3, as that depends on the state's vaccine supply.

Missouri still has a limited vaccine supply, so it will likely be mid- to late April, said Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

"Those people who are more likely to get sick, and bluntly, to pass away if they get COVID, continue to be the governor's focus and my focus and all of our focus," Williams said Thursday during Gov. Mike Parson's weekly COVID-19 briefing. "So the answer is that's what's guiding us and will continue to guide us."

The five most recent Missouri teachers of the year recently sent a letter to Williams asking him to prioritize school staff for immediate vaccinations.

The letter states Missouri school staff have "risked their lives this year" and stepped up to the challenge to meet the needs of students, families and the community.

"We have been thanked as heroes — and just as often have been accused of 'not doing enough.' And yet: We have continued to place the needs of the children as our first priorities," the letter states. "Imagine, then, the dismay and chagrin teachers feel in knowing that many of our state's school employees within Phase 1B Tier 3 may not have access to the vaccine for several months."

It goes on to say some districts have lowered their safety precautions, such as no longer identifying close contacts if they were wearing masks, teaching without mask protocols and abandoning social-distancing guidelines.

"This indicates an even more pressing need for Missouri educators to receive higher prioritization to the vaccine," the letter states.

The letter highlighted that 26 states chose to vaccinate educators immediately, including seven of Missouri's eight bordering states.

Williams released the following statement in response to the letter: "We look forward to the day when supply increases to the point where we can vaccinate our teachers and enhance classroom safety. Right now, Missouri remains committed to protecting the more than 3 million senior citizens, health care providers, first responders and those with underlying health conditions who are currently eligible for the vaccine. With the limited amount of vaccine currently available, we must prioritize those most vulnerable."

Gov. Mike Parson's office released a similar statement that cites recent CDC reports that indicate COVID-19 transmission in schools is low and in-person learning does not commonly increase community spread.

"In Missouri, we have seen that with proper COVID-19 preventive measures in place, schools offer a controlled and structured environment that is unlikely to increase the risk of students or teachers contracting COVID-19," the statement says. "We remain hard at work to achieve our goal of providing the COVID-19 vaccine to EVERY Missourian who wants it as soon as possible."

Several states, including Kansas and Illinois, have begun vaccinating teachers, considering school staff front-line essential workers, according to the Associated Press.

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