TRENTON, NJ - New Jersey will expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility later this month to millions more people including teachers, the homeless and clergy, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.

Educators have been among the groups lobbying for higher prioritization. As of March 15, K-12 educators and school support staff will qualify for shots. Exactly how the state will allocate proper doses is still being worked out, according to state officials.

"This is what we need; it's been a long road for teachers who have been anxiously awaiting this," said Patrick Frain, president of the Somerville Education Association, which represents 286 teachers, support staff and bus drivers.

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"This will be a big boost for morale, and get us all in a better state of mind," Frain continued.

"There's been a lot of frustration in the buildings," he added, noting that three teachers in the past two weeks have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.

Somerville Public Schools have been adhering to a hybrid model of instruction, according to Frain. Special Ed students attend school five days a week. The remaining students attend school until 11:50 a.m. each day, with instruction online in the afternoons.

"It's tough," Frain said. "A lot of these kids need to be in the classroom all day."

The Somerset County Education Association, which represents 7,000 teachers in 21 municipalities issued the following statement:

"We welcome Governor Murphy’s announcement today and recognition of the critical importance of vaccine access for school employees. Ensuring access to the vaccine is the quickest way to assist with providing stability to our students, safety to our members and a major step towards the normalcy that all of New Jersey is seeking during this difficult time.

"We look forward to further actions that will provide more efficient access to vaccines for all interested parties, including higher education employees, and applaud the Governor for taking this important step."

Last week the SCEA sent a letter to Murphy urging the governor to consider prioritizing teachers for the vaccinations in an effort to ensure health and safety in the classrooms.

What may help is the latest emergency approval of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which Murphy called a “game changer.” The New Jersey Health Department expects to receive over 73,000 shots of the J&J vaccine by mid-week, but deliveries going forward are not known.

During his press conference Monday afternoon, the governor said he hopes schools will be fully in-person come September, but “at a minimum [fully] in a hybrid format.”

Murphy stated, “As it pertains to educators specifically, we will work obviously with [Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli’s] team, the Department of Education, our partners at [the New Jersey Education Association], school leaders, local education stakeholders and our sites on means of ensuring full access without interrupting the school day.”

Out of the state’s 811 district, charter, renaissance and schools for students with disabilities as of Monday 110 are all in-person, 533 are in a hybrid format, 142 are all remote and 27 are using a mix of the options throughout their buildings.

NJEA President Marie Blistan called Monday’s announcement a “big step.”

“The sooner educators are vaccinated, the sooner our entire state is safer,” Bilstan said. “We call on the administration to immediately extend that access to employees in higher education who are equally as exposed and equally as critical to fully reopening our state for in-person instruction. At every level, New Jersey educators have worked tirelessly to educate our students and have advocated tirelessly to protect them and our communities throughout this pandemic by demanding high standards for health and safety.”

Murphy, who shared that he had not seen Bilstan’s full statement, said, “We will get to higher ed and we will get there soon. Not everybody's covered by what we've just announced today….You get a couple of months from now we're a whole different ballgame.”

The state issued the following on additional eligibility:

Starting March 15:

  • Educators, including support staff, in pre-K through 12th grade settings
  • Childcare workers in licensed and registered settings
  • Public and local transportation workers, including bus, taxi, ride-share, and airport employees; NJ TRANSIT workers; and Motor Vehicle Commission staff
  • Public safety workers who are not sworn law enforcement or fire professionals, including probation officers and fire safety inspectors
  • Migrant farmworkers
  • Members of tribal communities
  • Individuals experiencing homelessness and those living in shelters, including domestic violence shelters

Starting March 29, frontline essential workers in the following categories are also eligible for vaccination:

  • Food production, agriculture, and food distribution
  • Eldercare and support
  • Warehousing and logistics
  • Social services support staff
  • Elections personnel
  • Hospitality
  • Medical supply chain
  • Postal and shipping services
  • Clergy
  • Judicial system

More than 2 million doses

New Jersey crossed over 2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Monday morning. The state currently sits at 2,039,427, with 1.35 million being first doses and over 690,000 second doses.

Murphy said the state is working to provide additional outreach to people 75 and older, emphasizing the need to helping seniors schedule appointments over the phone and increasing dose availability at mega-sites.

He also emphasized that the sites are not walk-up and those residents that do have appointment such arrive 15 minutes prior to their scheduled time.

Watch Monday's press conference below: