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Teachers 'Are So Anxious To Get Vaccinated,' Says Pittsburgh Union President

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Charlie Neibergall
/
AP
With Governor Tom Wolf's announcement that teachers will be eligible for the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, the president of Pittsburgh's teacher union says many educators are ready to get in the classroom, once inoculated.

On today's program: Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, explains what she’s hearing from members now that educators will be prioritized to receive the newly approved Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine; and local urban agriculture leaders explain why their work has become more needed in the pandemic, and how grants from the state Farm Bill could help.

Gov. Tom Wolf says educators and staff can get COVID-19 vaccine sooner than expected

(0:00 — 8:54) 

Pennsylvania educators and staff are now prioritized to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccination has been earmarked for the roughly 200,000 Commonwealth residents who work in education. 

Those teachers working with younger children, special education students and English language learners will be prioritized among educators. 

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, says teachers are eager to come back to the classroom. In Pittsburgh, some educators could be back as early as March 22.  

“We never intended to jump ahead of the medical people or first responders,” she says. “So we were perfectly happy being the [Phase] 1B.”

Esposito-Visgitis says educators and staff were supposed to be vaccinated by February 2021, but since the state expanded eligibility for Phase 1A, it pushed teacher and staff vaccinations further out. 

“They were frustrated when they were pushed back,” says Esposito-Visgitis. Face-to-face teaching is best for most kids and remote teaching is very difficult on educators, she explains. 

However, teachers and staff are not required to receive the vaccine. Esposito-Visgitis says there have been multiple education sessions in the past few months to increase trust in the vaccine. 

“You can't force it on anyone,” she says. “We want them to want the vaccine. My hope would be every one of our members would want the vaccine.”

Local teachers say they need some time to get back into the swing of things before they welcome students back into the classroom. 

“I think we are all going to need to find time and space. It’s been an awful year in so many ways, but we are going to keep the best things we’ve learned and get rid of the things that have not served us well,” Esposito-Visgitis says. 

Sydney Roach contributed to this report. 

Pittsburgh urban farm organizations were even busier in the pandemic
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Pennsylvania’s second Farm Bill allocated half-a-million dollars to support urban agriculture infrastructure, and applications for these grants opened last week

In 2019, nearly $100,000 went to supporting urban agriculture in Allegheny County. That included a $50,000 grant to Grow Pittsburgh, an organization that supports schools with community gardens and urban farming. Grow Pittsburgh used the grant to build a new greenhouse. 

“Without that greenhouse, we wouldn’t be able to leverage our financial standing to actually complete the Garden Dreams project [in Wilkinsburg],” says Grow Pittsburgh executive director Denele Hughson.

Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh also plans to apply for an Urban Agriculture Infrastructure grant to support its 31,000-square-foot Homewood Historical Farm.

“In Homewood, there hasn’t been a grocery store since 1995,” says Raqueeb Bey, founder and executive director of Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh. “There are those of us who are working as a collective, Grow Pittsburgh included, to end food apartheid in Homewood.” 

Bey says “food apartheid” describes Black and brown neighborhoods that are low-income, underserved, and where residents have to travel outside of the community to find fresh produce. Urban gardens, she says, can bridge the gap by providing the freshest food to residents.  

Hughson from Grow Pittsburgh says she prefers the term “food apartheid” to “food desert” in describing such neighborhoods. 

“A desert is a naturally occurring system in our environment,” says Hughson. “A food apartheid is a systematic issue that is created by governments and local policy that strips those neighborhoods of grocery stores.”

Despite the pandemic, Hughson and Bey say their respective farm operations have continued with more social distancing. 

“We did not scale back in food production,” says Bey. “Because of COVID and the economic impact, we knew we needed to get more food out there.” More people than ever came to Black Urban Gardeners wanting to learn, and Bey says the organization also led food distributions and a weekly, free farmer’s market. 

“If anything, the pandemic showed how important our local food economy and local food system is, especially urban farming,” says Hughson. 

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Isabelle is a student at George Washington University studying Political Communication. She loves all things Pittsburgh sports and serves as a sports anchor for GW-TV. In her free time, she enjoys museum hopping and walking her dog, Stevie.
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