To get kids back in school, we need a huge push to vaccinate all teachers (opinion)

I’ve been thinking about her a lot recently, along with the dilemma of how to get children back into schools while also keeping teachers safe. Although recent data on coronavirus in schools is reassuring, I believe if we want to get kids back into classrooms we must first vaccinate all our teachers.
On February 25, 2020, when the US had only documented a total of 14 coronavirus infections, Dr. Nancy Messonier, the Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases told reporters that “disruption to everyday life” in America could be “severe.” Furthermore, she said that parents should ask their schools about contingency plans for closure.
Several weeks later President Donald Trump addressed the nation and asked everyone, if possible, to work from home. In short order, nearly 124,000 K-12 schools in the United States closed, affecting 55.1 million students. Teachers scrambled to stand up remote learning systems, and most US schools stayed shuttered for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year.
Over the summer, getting kids back into schools became a blistering political issue. In July, Vice President Mike Pence, who was also the head of the previous administration’s Coronavirus Task Force said, “It’s absolutely essential that we get kids back into classrooms for in-person learning.”
In September, the CDC recommended the use of quantitative measures of community infection, coupled with a qualitative assessment of a school’s ability to implement key mitigation strategies as tools to help decide when to reopen. In the end, decisions on reopening were made on a state-by-state, and sometimes district-by-district, basis. Currently about half of US students are still learning from home.
The children the pandemic is threatening
Adapting to learning from home has posed tremendous challenges for American families, and it has also taken a great toll on America’s 3.7 million public and private school teachers, whose job satisfaction is now very low. In fact, a recent survey found 27% of those polled were considering retiring early or leaving the profession.
President Joe Biden’s administration has made school reopening a key priority of its first 100 days. In his inaugural address, Biden said, “We can teach our children in safe schools,” a concept supported by a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study of 5,530 students and staff in 17 schools in rural Wisconsin identified only 191 cases of coronavirus, a rate of infection 37% lower than the community at large.
Echoing this data, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this week, “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen.” She added that “vaccinations of teachers is not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools.”
The fact is, that although data does suggest that schools can be made relatively safe, 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. Many teachers have medical conditions that increase their Covid risk and 31% are older than 50 years of age.

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.

Although the CDC has recommended including people who work in the educational sector in the second round of vaccinations (phase 1b), not all states have done this. According to EducationWeek , as of Feb 4, 24 states and the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have made teachers eligible to receive the vaccine. What’s more, even in states where teachers can now receive the vaccine, as is the case with most other Americans, finding a vaccination appointment can be very difficult.
In her year-end message, Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers said, “After frontline healthcare workers, students and school staff should have priority for vaccination, aligned with the reopening of schools.” Throughout the pandemic teachers have been classified as essential workers, but unlike those working in health care, educators have not been placed in the top vaccination priority tiers.

If our high priority is to open schools this academic year, then let’s mobilize to vaccinate all of our teachers. If we do this quickly, America’s educators can be protected by the middle of March, and our schools can once again be our country’s centers of learning.

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