Opinion: Vaccinating educators now is key to reopening schools

Every day that children are denied regular, full-day school adds to the remediation crisis we’ll inevitably face once educational normalcy is reestablished.

There can be no doubt that President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are committed to reopening America’s schools as rapidly as possible. As early as the first week in December, then-president-elect Biden announced that he planned to at least partly reopen most of the nation’s schools within the first 100 days of his presidency.

Guidelines released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) underscore this commitment to get most schools open as soon as possible. But the agency’s recommendations are soft, hardly reflecting the urgency justified by the damage to the education of millions of children caused by prolonged disruption of full-time, in-school learning.

The CDC recommendations seem to depend on schools enforcing a range of public health guidelines like masking, distancing, hygiene and sufficient ventilation. Unfortunately, getting anything close to full and effective adoption of these recommendations in the near future is remote. The CDC also gives surprisingly short shrift to the issue of ensuring effective ventilation in all classrooms that would be utilized by teachers and students.

But my principal concern is that the guidelines should be much stronger when it comes to vaccinating teachers.

The CDC states that vaccinations for teachers should be available “as soon as supply allows”. But as of now, at least 10 to 15 million doses of vaccine are on shelves and could be available to the nation’s 3.7 million public- and private-school K-12 teachers and fewer than 2 million school administrators and staff. This would give educators a much-needed sense of confidence that they would be safe and protected in schools, especially with increased efforts to make classrooms compliant with essential public health guidelines.

Irwin Redlener, M.D.

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

It’s true that the federal government has essentially no authority to require local school districts to enforce any particular protocols, but I was hoping to see much-stronger recommendations on vaccinations as part of the new guidelines.

Importantly, teachers themselves – truly essential workers - overwhelmingly want to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom. A recent survey conducted by Hart Research Associates for the American Federation of Teachers showed that 83% of U.S. teachers agree that school faculty and staff should be given priority for receiving the coronavirus vaccine.

And the two factors they considered most essential to opening schools safely were universal mask-wearing and vaccinating school staff. These data should come as no surprise since more than one-third of teachers stated that they have a preexisting medical condition and 48% have a COVID-19 high-risk person living in their household.

I realize that the weight of scientific evidence supports the CDC’s position that schools can, in fact, be reopened safely even if teachers and staff are not vaccinated -- provided that non-pharmaceutical guidelines are strictly followed. But the issue of teachers being vaccinated goes beyond what is simply consistent with the state of science and what we currently know about the behavior of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

For instance, we understand that the transmission of the virus in schools is limited and, in most cases, far less than seen in the communities surrounding most schools. And we know that children are far less likely to be infected or fall gravely ill from COVID-19 than adults. But the fact is that our state of knowledge about the pandemic remains in flux. As emerging variants of the virus are being seen with alarming frequency, no one can say for sure what’s headed our way.

We must not dismiss the anxiety and personal vulnerability teachers feel about returning to school. To be sure, there are many other essential workers who deserve to be vaccine-prioritized because they are as exposed and vulnerable to COVID-19 as are teachers. Public transportation operators, grocery and pharmacy clerks and people who deliver essential goods are themselves at daily risk from coronavirus exposure. These risks are real and must be addressed as a matter of equity and fairness.

Still, the issue of reopening schools carries an additional grave societal concern. The massive pandemic-related disruption of K-12 education is the greatest educational challenge in modern American history. Even if every child in the country returned to full-time, in-person school tomorrow, getting every student back on a successful educational trajectory will present a challenge unlike any we’ve ever faced in the U.S.

Well before the pandemic, wide intractable educational gaps existed between white and non-white students, and between children from low-income families and those from more-affluent environments. Now, increasing absenteeism among students struggling to learn remotely, as well as those attending hybrid, part-time in-person classes is exacerbating the gaps and challenges facing millions of children struggling to keep up with their educations.

Every day that children are denied regular, full-day school adds to the remediation crisis we’ll inevitably face once educational normalcy is reestablished. This does not bode well for students increasingly left behind – or, for that matter, America’s capacity to handle the challenges awaiting us in the coming decades.

If vaccinating teachers and school staff will help accelerate getting children back in classrooms, what are we waiting for?

Irwin Redlener, M.D., is the founding director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute as well as a senior research scholar. He is also the author of “Americans at Risk: Why We’re Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” and “The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America.”