KITCHENER -- Staff working with students with special education needs at Waterloo Region's public and Catholic school boards are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a news release on Wednesday afternoon, officials said the region's vaccination rollout plan is aimed at prioritizing vaccines for people at the greatest risk of severe illness and people who care for them.

"These staff members play a critical role in our schools, supporting our students with the most complex needs to ensure they are able to participate as fully as possible in learning each and every day," the release said in part.

The release said the eligible staff members work with vulnerable students who may not be able to wear a mask.

‘We greatly appreciate the collaboration with public health in prioritizing the staff who work closely and provide care for our most vulnerable students, and we recognize the tremendous commitment of all of our staff to our students.’’ said John Bryant, Director of Education for the Waterloo Region District School Board in the release.

“We are grateful for our partnership with Region of Waterloo Public Health to help us prioritize vaccination for our most vulnerable staff. We value the work and service of all our staff and this first step energizes us that things are moving in a hopeful direction.” added Loretta Notten, Director of Education for the Waterloo Catholic District School Board.

School boards have reached out to eligible staff directly with more information on registering for a vaccine appointment.

Kristy McDonnell, the department head of special education at St. Mary's Catholic High School, said she's excited about the news.

"When I initially read the email, I was overwhelmed," she said. "I think I probably still am, because this is something I have really wanted for our staff and our students in our schools for some time now."

Provincial officials insist schools are safe and said they'll remain open under the stay-at-home order that comes into effect Thursday at 12:01 a.m.

In-class learning will continue after April break.

“Our government is on the side of parents, students and medical experts who want in-person learning protected," a statement from Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in part. "As confirmed by Premier Ford today, schools will remain open throughout the stay-at-home order, with stronger health and safety protocols in place and accelerated access to the vaccine for education staff."

There are new protocols including asymptomatic testing for students in pharmacies over April break, more outdoor education and mandatory daily screening for all students.

"In elementary school we didn't doo that," Lecce said. "We're now mandating for all schools, elementary, high school and staff."

"Our enhanced measures are focused on continuing to keep schools safe and open, including through significant expansion of testing access, stricter screening, enhanced cleaning over the break and encouraging outdoor learning when possible."

Lecce also said special education staff across Ontario will be able to access COVID-19 vaccines right away. Other education staff will also be eligible for vaccines in priority neighbourhoods in Toronto and Peel soon. More neighbourhoods will be added to the list as supply becomes available.

Waterloo Region's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said parents and schools should prepare for the possibility of online learning after April break. She said officials will monitor case counts closely in the coming days.