As Minnesota races to inoculate its K-12 teachers, one group of educators has been left off the vaccine priority list: college professors.

State health officials said Thursday that college faculty and staff are not now considered a priority group for COVID-19 vaccination, meaning they will have to wait their turn like most other Minnesotans.

Professors and faculty unions criticized the decision as shortsighted.

"It's really unclear why teachers teaching in person to adults that are 18 are being treated differently than teachers teaching face to face to 16- and 17-year-olds," said Elisia Cohen, director of the University of Minnesota's journalism school, where some faculty continue to teach in person. "Just to not say anything about higher education in the [vaccination] plan, to me, was an oversight."

Many colleges and universities have shifted most of their courses online. But faculty teaching health care, sciences, trades and other hands-on subjects have continued to teach in the classroom.

Across Minnesota State's 30 community and technical colleges, some 2,200 faculty members are teaching classes in person or in a hybrid format, according to faculty unions. About 1,800 faculty working at Minnesota State's seven universities are also teaching face to face some of the time, as are roughly 2,500 professors and teaching assistants at the University of Minnesota's five campuses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that college and university teachers should be included in the same vaccination phase as education workers, though CDC officials added that states may prioritize essential workers differently.

A number of states, including South Dakota and West Virginia, are lumping college faculty and K-12 teachers into the same priority group. Many other states are focusing on K-12 educators first. New York has struck a middle ground with college faculty, only vaccinating those teaching in person.

The Minnesota Department of Health is prioritizing K-12 teachers because "not all students can successfully social distance or maintain masks, thus putting these educators at higher risk," spokesman Scott Smith said. Plus, getting children back into school is necessary for parents to return to work.

College students and faculty are more likely to successfully practice social distancing, Smith said. He noted that some faculty will be included in earlier vaccination priority groups based on their age and health conditions.

Michelle Briski, director of St. Paul College's medical laboratory technician program, said she believes state leaders are wrong to assume that because colleges can offer remote classes, faculty do not need to be quickly vaccinated.

Briski said she and many fellow faculty members have been teaching in-person classes since August; she is teaching in the classroom three to four times per week this semester. While Briski and her students are typically clad in personal protective equipment, she still fears catching COVID-19 and transmitting it to others.

Jim Gielissen, a St. Paul College professor who teaches biochemistry and microbiology, argued the state has the capacity to vaccinate the relatively low number of faculty who are actively teaching in person. Minnesota vaccinated nearly 42,000 people on Friday.

"It's like 1% of the number of vaccines we get in a week," Gielissen said. "All of these instructors who are still teaching face to face are doing so at their own peril, and it would only take a very, very small percentage of them getting the vaccine to reduce the risk significantly."

Faculty unions are asking state leaders to reconsider. Matt Williams, president of the Minnesota State College Faculty union, warned that without a clear plan to vaccinate all faculty, college life might not return to normal this fall.

"The later we take to get higher ed faculty in the queue, the more … likely that there will continue to be some sort of disruption as we head into the fall semester," Williams said. He added that many students who struggled with online learning might not be up for another semester of it.

Cohen shared similar concerns, saying the lack of clarity from state leaders makes it difficult to plan for the fall. It also could affect enrollment, she said, because prospective freshman might opt to sit out this fall if a return to normalcy is not guaranteed.

"What higher education needs is clear guidance from the governor's office on … the Minnesota strategy to achieve community immunity on campus and a full return to campus-based instruction. That's what's missing right now," Cohen said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth