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President Biden last week said teachers should be prioritized for coronavirus vaccinations as part of a push to reopen the nation’s schools for in-person instruction. His comments, which were echoed by Vice President Kamala Harris, would seem to run counter to a statement made by the director of the CDC earlier this month when she said “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”
The disconnect from within the federal government reflects the fractured nature of the debate over reopening schools. A growing body of scientific evidence has shown that schools can be reasonably safe for both students and staff with the proper precautions in place. Yet, schools in much of the country have remained closed, as local lawmakers in many cities have struggled to reach agreements with teachers unions on a plan to return to the classroom.
Both school policies and vaccination protocols are set at the state and local levels, which limits Biden’s ability to advance his goal of opening all of the nation’s K-8 schools to at least some in-person learning in his first 100 days in office. As of Monday, 30 states and Washington, D.C., had made some or all teachers eligible for the vaccines. Elsewhere, vaccines are still being reserved for frontline health care workers, the elderly and those with certain medical conditions.
Why there’s debate
Advocates for prioritizing teachers and other staff for vaccinations say it’s the only way to ensure that schools are safe, since many schools won’t have the resources to consistently enforce virus mitigation strategies like social distancing, masks and regular testing. New research shows the dangers in schools that don't adhere to strict protocols. Because they interact with so many people during their work day, teachers could — in theory — become superspreaders who set off major outbreaks as children bring the virus back home. Unless teachers are protected, others argue, schools that reopen will invariably have to close again if cases emerge, a disruption that could be more harmful than continuing remote classes.
Opponents of moving teachers up the eligibility list say it’s unfair for young school employees who face relatively low risk to receive limited vaccine doses ahead of older, more vulnerable groups. Others argue that teachers unions are asking for accommodations that other groups of essential workers haven’t received throughout the pandemic, even though they face significantly less danger than those in other professions. There are also concerns that waiting for all teachers to get the vaccine could mean distance learning goes on for months longer than it has to, especially considering the relatively low risk children face from the virus.
Another group makes a more pragmatic argument. While the practical case against prioritizing teachers is strong, the unions hold significant leverage. If vaccinating teachers is what it takes to get schools open, it’s worth doing so for the benefit of students and parents, they say.
Even if teachers are prioritized for vaccines, that may not be enough to bring students back into the classroom in some places. Several large unions, citing the potential risk that vaccinated people may still spread the virus to others, have said that they may refuse to return to school even after their members are protected as long as community transmission remains high.
It’s naive to think all schools can enforce virus mitigation protocols
“The fact is … the school environment can’t be made completely sterile. Classrooms are often small and overcrowded, many buildings are old with suboptimal ventilation and it’s nearly impossible to teach children, while also social distancing. … Not surprisingly, many are reluctant to return to the classroom until they feel their personal risk, and the risk to their families, is acceptable. The only way to do this is to vaccinate teachers now.” — Jonathan Reiner, CNN
Teachers could be superspreaders if not vaccinated
“The choice to vaccinate all adults in schools … reduces the likelihood of their infection, which keeps the students with whom they interact safer and thus entire neighborhoods by extension. In this way, prioritizing adults in school for vaccination amounts to a public-health force multiplier.” — Danny Benjamin & Kanecia Zimmerman, Education Week
Vaccinating teachers can help schools stay open for good
“If teachers and school staff are fully vaccinated before returning to school, it lowers the chance that classrooms will be disrupted, yet again, if and when COVID-19 cases occur in schools.” — Rhea Powell, Philadelphia Inquirer
Lawmakers should cave to union demands for the sake of the students
“Getting children back to school — for the sake of their education and mental health — deserves special consideration. If that means getting teachers vaccinated … so be it.” — Joan Vennochi, Boston Globe
Any agreement to vaccinate teachers should include a pledge to return to the classroom
“A zero-Covid scenario is very unlikely for the foreseeable future, even after mass vaccination. As a society we have to ask at what point we can expect citizens, and certainly those deemed essential workers like teachers, to accept a minimal degree of risk.” — David Zweig, Wired
Teachers are essential, but not special
“The refusal of unions to teach is appalling. Imagine if the millions of grocery clerks who showed up for work over the past year had said they would not conduct in-person sales until they had been vaccinated? America would have starved. They came to work because their jobs were essential. But apparently teachers unions don’t believe teachers are essential. Millions of American parents say otherwise.” — Marc A. Thiessen, Washington Post
Young, healthy teachers shouldn’t be in line before more vulnerable groups
“Teachers and other education personnel — a large number of whom are healthy young adults — are now at the front of the line for COVID vaccinations while many vulnerable seniors struggle to get inoculations. The data simply doesn’t justify this.” — Editorial, Las Vegas Review Journal
Only at-risk teachers should get priority
“At this early stage, we still think it makes the most sense to prioritize people based on their age or vulnerability, like a teacher with a heart condition. Let’s wait until more people are vaccinated, before we prioritize all teachers.” — Editorial, Star-Ledger
There shouldn’t be any job-based eligibility criteria at all
“I’m not sure such prioritization — or really any prioritization that creates complexity or administrative delay — is a good idea anyway. The closer we can get to ‘first-come, first-served, with the elderly allowed to cut in line,’ the better.” — Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review
Teachers unions are abusing their power to keep their members happy
“This really is one of the great scandals of the pandemic. At first unions demanded that cases drop in their cities before schools open. Now cases are falling almost everywhere. So unions are insisting that teachers must be vaccinated before returning.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
Students and families don’t have time to wait for all teachers to get the vaccine
“Younger staff are not at particular risk; it is generally safe for them to return to schools until vaccines become more widely available. Even if everyone could get their first shots today, it would take five to six weeks before they would be considered fully protected. That’s far too long.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
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