Teachers and staff at the state's colleges and universities will be eligible for the covid-19 vaccine starting Monday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced.
The news brought cheers from among those working in higher education while questions remained after Hutchinson's remarks Tuesday about how much vaccine will be available, whether any workers might be excluded from eligibility and what role large campuses will have in distributing it.
"I want to get the vaccine, and I want it as soon as possible," said Carolyn Rodeffer, 60, an instructor in the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville's Sam M. Walton College of Business. She called Hutchinson's announcement "great news."
Rodeffer said she feels comfortable teaching four in-person classes this semester -- including one large class with more than 120 students -- because of the physical spacing in place during class and how she's seen students following health protocols such as wearing face coverings.
About the vaccine, "the sooner we all get it, the sooner we can get back to something that reasonably approximates normal life," Rodeffer said.
College students as a group are not among those eligible for the vaccine starting next week. Hutchinson said "higher education staff and teachers" will be eligible starting Monday for vaccination along with kindergarten-12 teachers and staff, daycare employees and persons 70 and over. He said that he did not expect enough vaccine to be available next week for all those in the groupings, which are considered a part of the state's "Phase 1-B" priority group for vaccination.
Without any further detail on eligibility from the governor Tuesday, spokespersons for several colleges in the state used careful language but indicated that they expect many types of workers to be among those able to get the vaccine.
"Our current understanding, according to state guidance, is that Phase 1-B will cover paid university employees -- faculty, staff and graduate assistants -- who are required to physically report to campus," Amy Schlesing, a UA spokeswoman said in an email. Graduate assistantships are awarded to students pursuing an advanced degree who teach courses or support research work.
In December, a UA-Fayetteville spokesman said the university had 4,789 total employees.
Jeff Hankins, a spokesman for the Arkansas State University System, said in a statement that "we know our institutional personnel will be eligible to begin receive vaccinations," referring to employees of the ASU System schools. Hankins said the colleges and universities in the ASU System have approximately 2,380 workers.
At John Brown University, a private Christian college, the thinking is that workers on the Siloam Springs campus will be eligible, a spokeswoman said.
"It is our understanding that this includes any employees who have a physical presence on campus including the employees of our campus vendors such as Creative Dining Services and Tree of Life Bookstores," John Brown University spokeswoman Julie Gumm said in an email.
A spokeswoman with the state Department of Health in an email said Tuesday that it was too soon to answer a question from the Democrat-Gazette about whether any categories or types of university workers might not yet be eligible to receive the vaccine Monday.
Those eligible can go to certain drugstore locations or other local providers to get the vaccine, officials said.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and at least one other college are seeking authorization from the state to deliver the vaccine on campus.
UA-Fayetteville's "Pat Walker Health Center has applied for approval to distribute vaccines, but they don't have approval to be a vaccination center at this time," Schlesing said in an email Tuesday.
Harding University, a private Christian college in Searcy, has a college of pharmacy that has also applied to be a vaccine provider, a spokeswoman said.
Multiple colleges are surveying employees about taking the covid-19 vaccine, spokesmen said. Several said that workers will be strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, but none of the schools contacted by the Democrat-Gazette described any requirement to do so.
"ASU System institutions are surveying employees to determine how many wish to receive the vaccine, and based on that information we will work with local providers to establish protocols and schedule vaccinations," Hankins, the ASU System's vice president for strategic communications and economic development, said in a statement.
Hankins said that for Arkansas State University, the state's second-largest university behind UA, work on vaccine delivery and protocols will be done with help from the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, which has a site on the Jonesboro campus.
Hendrix College is also surveying faculty and staff, said Amy Forbus, a spokeswoman for the private liberal arts college in Conway.
Knowing the number of employees wanting the vaccine will help with distribution, Arkansas Tech University spokesman Sam Strasner said.
"The initial feedback we have received from local authorities involved in vaccine distribution is they need a number for how many ATU employees are interested in receiving the vaccine beginning on that date. Obtaining that number by the end of this week is an institutional priority and will be achieved by polling faculty and staff," Strasner said.
Despite the unknowns, a spokesman for the University of Arkansas System called the governor's announcement "extremely welcome news."
"There are many details to be determined in light of this news, and the UA System anticipates encouraging all employees who are eligible to utilize local providers for vaccination as quickly as possible while following all directives further given by the Department of Health about the distribution and vaccination processes," UA System spokesman Nate Hinkel said in an email.
Hankins, with the ASU System, said: "We are incredibly grateful to Governor Hutchinson and other state officials for recognizing the importance of our higher education personnel and the critical role they play in educating the students of our state."