“If we can prioritize vaccinating education employees, we can begin to provide instruction to our students in-person at our schools and keep those that have been able to teach in-person to continue doing so.”
The first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration began arriving in states this week. While healthcare workers are at the front of the line to receive the shots, education advocates are hoping that state governments will move to prioritize teachers in the next round.
Doing so, they say, will make it safer for schools to reopen for in-person learning.
“If we can prioritize vaccinating education employees, we can begin to provide instruction to our students in-person at our schools and keep those that have been able to teach in-person to continue doing so,” Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association told COURIER. The union represents 135,000 teachers, classroom aides, paraprofessionals, janitorial staff, school secretaries, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, school nurses, social workers, grounds crews, and many other school employees in the state of Illinois. “We also believe if we can safely keep schools open, students will be able to attend school so that parents won’t have to balance their own work with monitoring and supporting their child[ren]’s online work.”
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Griffin’s comments echo a Nov. 30 letter sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on behalf of a coalition of national education organizations and teachers’ unions. In it, the School Superintendents Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National School Boards Association, and others say the country’s 5 million K-12 public school employees should be among the first groups to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
“We know that student learning has declined, more children are now living in poverty, and too many students are dealing with mental health issues, food, and housing insecurity, abuse or neglect, or sickness or death of loved ones,” the letter states. “Our students need to come back to school safely, educators want to welcome them back, and no one should have to risk their health to make this a reality.”
The coalition also points out that prioritizing teachers could help build trust in the vaccination program. “If school personnel could be vaccinated early in the process, school buildings could even serve as vaccination centers for the general public, as schools are a centerpiece of almost every community and served important roles during the mass polio vaccinations,” they write. “This could help a vaccination program reach its goals more quickly and effectively.”
Teachers Are Considered Critical Personnel by the Federal Government
In August, the Trump administration deemed teachers in the US “essential workers.” While the agenda behind that decision was aimed at pushing school districts to open for in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year, the “critical infrastructure workers” classification for teachers could mean quicker access to the vaccine.
Currently, “phase 1a” of the CDC’s recommendations for use prioritizes healthcare personnel who treat patients in hospitals and long-term care facilities, as well as facility residents, for the first round of the vaccine. Although the advisory committee has yet to finalize federal recommendations for subsequent rollout, Phase 1b will likely focus on essential workers, including police, firefighters, workers in food production and transportation, and teachers. About 87 million Americans make up that essential worker group.
While schools are not a big driver of coronavirus infection spread, many teachers are worried about the health risks of being forced back into the classroom. On Tuesday, more than 500 teachers in Atlanta, Houston, and other cities participated in a nationwide protest and called in sick over policies they say jeopardizes their health.
“I think teachers are tired of not being heard or consulted,” said Whitney Sandoval, a Kansas-based certified orientation and mobility specialist who teaches children with visual impairments to live safely and independently in their environment. “If educators aren’t prioritized soon, I’m not sure how school districts will bounce back from the teacher shortages they will most likely experience next school year and beyond.”
In a nationwide poll of educators in August, the National Education Association found that 28 percent said the COVID-19 pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave the profession. According to Education Week, K-12 teacher retirements have dramatically increased in 2020 from the national average—deepening the country’s existing shortage of qualified teachers.
As of Nov. 18, approximately 300 school employees have died from the coronavirus in the U.S. since the pandemic began.
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Sandoval said that COVID-19 case numbers were so high within her school district this fall that public health officials couldn’t maintain effective contact tracing. “It could be weeks before I found out I was in contact with a student,” she said. Sandoval works with multiple school districts and said only one of them has gone fully remote despite being well over the 20% positivity rate threshold. (The positivity rate is an important metric for determining whether a school should remain open or switch to fully virtual because the rate offers some indication of how widespread COVID-19 is in the area where testing is occurring.)
“They are planning to return to in-person [instruction] when we return from winter break—right after everyone celebrates the holidays,” she said.
Many Officials Are Already Moving to Put Teachers to the Front of the Line
Even if teachers are among those prioritized for the vaccine early next year, experts say that daily life in schools will more than likely not return to normal for a long time. “My feeling is that we’re all going to be wearing masks and keeping our distance and trying to be careful around each other for probably most of 2021,” Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told the New York Times.
Nonetheless, some governors, like Utah’s Gary Herbert and Arizona’s Doug Ducey, are already ensuring teachers are prioritized for inoculation. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said this week that teachers there will count as essential workers and will be vaccinated before the general public, beginning as soon as possible. The Austin Independent School District has also informed its teachers they will receive a COVID-19 vaccine alongside other essential workers in early 2021.
“Our teachers will be in the second phase because [the state knows] how important our teachers are to our schools,” Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said during the district’s Dec. 14 board meeting. “The lobbying that we did collectively, our voices were heard.”
Meanwhile, other education advocates are continuing their efforts. Griffin of the Illinois Education Association said her organization is working on a call to action for Illinois lawmakers to push for teachers to get the vaccine as soon as possible.
“We’ve sent more than 2,200 emails,” she said. “We plan to continue to encourage lawmakers to meet so that they can put several safety precautions in place, including prioritizing the vaccine for education employees.”