Feb. 4, 2021 -- President Joe Biden promised to reopen elementary and middle schools to in-person learning within the first 100 days of his presidency, but teachers in many areas have balked at that plan, saying they don’t feel safe being in a classroom until they are given the opportunity to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
On Wednesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said it was possible for schools to reopen safely even if teachers had not yet had a chance to be vaccinated.
“Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” she said at a COVID Response Team press briefing in response to a question from WebMD.
But later in the afternoon, when asked if Walensky’s answer was in line with the president’s plans, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the CDC still hasn’t released official guidelines for school reopenings. “And so we'd certainly defer to that, which we hope to see soon,” she said.
The Case for Reopening
Walensky says there’s now good evidence to support in-person education, even before teachers and students have a chance to be vaccinated.
In the most recent study, researchers looked at 17 K-12 schools in rural Wood County, WI. From the end of August to the end of November, investigators followed COVID-19 infections among more than 4,800 students and more than 650 staff members. They were taking some important precautions. Nearly all the students and teachers wore masks. They spread out to stay at least 6 feet apart during the day. Class sizes were reduced, and classes quarantined when cases were detected.
After more than 3 months, only seven of nearly 5,000 kids caught a case of COVID at school, and no teachers or staff were infected.
Early in the pandemic, many school districts said mitigation efforts were beyond their limited budgets. But Congress has now directed money to schools in both stimulus packages, and Biden has allotted even more money to schools in his rescue plan. That money is meant to pay for mitigation strategies like regular, rapid testing and enhanced ventilation.
Measures like these have allowed many private schools to stay open through the pandemic, something education advocates say has widened disparities between middle-class and more affluent families.
Teachers Ask for Vaccines
Still, some teachers continue to feel vulnerable to the virus in class. They don’t want to go back until they can get vaccinated. The nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, said on Thursday that it stood behind teachers who feel they need vaccination to stay safe.
“As an elementary art teacher in Cobb County, I teach over 100 students a day. That's a lot of exposure. I'd like to get the vaccine, too, please,” tweeted Sherryl Lane, who teaches art to elementary school students in Cobb County, a school district that recently had three teachers die from COVID.
The federal government has left it to states to decide how limited vaccine supplies should be distributed.
The CDC has recommended that priority for the vaccines be offered in three tiers. The first in line were health care workers and people living in long-term care facilities. Nearly all states have expanded eligibility for vaccines beyond those two groups.
Many states have now moved into the second tier, which includes teachers and other essential workers and adults who are ages 75 and up. Almost half of states are now vaccinating essential workers, including teachers, and seniors, according to The New York Times.
But many states -- including Florida and Georgia -- have offered shots up to seniors ages 65 and up, a group the CDC recommended for its third tier, ahead of teachers.
That’s proved to be a thorny decision as the President and parents push to reopen schools.
In a news conference on Thursday, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said he would open vaccination to seniors 65 and up on Monday, but he hasn’t yet allowed teachers to get in line.
“It is clearly the older people who are at risk; we are not going to take a single vaccination away from those who are likely to die from this virus to give to someone who is not likely to die from the virus. It would be unethical and immoral to do that,” he said.
He said schools should reopen even without having their teachers vaccinated.
The Georgia Department of Public Health recently suspended a major distributor of vaccines in Elbert County from its vaccination program for 6 months after the hospital tried to vaccinate local teachers.
In Chicago, the city remained in a standoff with a teachers union over plans to resume in-person learning on Monday. Kids have been in virtual classrooms there since last March.
For its part, the National Education Association said it shared the goal of getting kids and teachers back into their classrooms, but only as long as schools districts were taking all necessary safety steps, such as requiring masks.
“Making safe in-person instruction a reality requires federal mandates and resources that compel and allow school districts and institutions of higher education to put in place the mitigating measures necessary to protect against COVID-19,” said Becky Pringle, president of the NEA. “The two most promising developments in the battle against COVID-19 -- vaccines and rapid COVID-19 tests -- can be game-changers for safe in-person instruction, and federal and state authorities should make them broadly and equitably available.”