Whether or not it should have happened sooner, teachers have been added to the list of essential workers prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden announced a new federal initiative to get teachers vaccinated by the end of March. It’s a crucial component of his plan to speed up the reopening of schools, which he had hoped to reopen during his first 100 days in office.
“Let’s treat in-person learning like the essential service that it is,” Biden said on Tuesday. “And that means getting essential workers to provide that service – educators, school staff, childcare workers – get them vaccinated immediately.”
Whereas only 30 states had initially prioritized teachers for vaccination, Biden effectively elevated the effort to the level of national mandate. Teachers and childcare workers will now be able to make vaccine appointments at some 9,000 pharmacies across the nation. The initiative is part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, through which the government has been sending doses to select pharmacies.
“If you’re a teacher, if you’re a childcare worker, if you’re a staff worker [or] if you’re a bus driver in a school, you are eligible to go to that pharmacy and get your vaccine. And we want all teachers to have at least one vaccination in the month of March,” senior White House advisor David Kessler told MSNBC.
The new priority status for educators comes nearly a year after the pandemic uprooted daily life in the U.S., shutting down schools and introducing kids and parents alike to the wonders of Zoom. It didn’t take long for educator and parental burnout to become a drag on millions of lives. Even with some schools putting into place hybrid learning, the upended routine has continued to take a toll on mental health, disrupting learning and development in the process.
National and state teacher unions welcomed Biden’s announcement, even as they carped that teachers had not been “prioritized” up until now.
“Vaccinations are a key ingredient to reopening schools safely, and this is the administration taking the steps to ramp up vaccinations for educators, which is great news for everyone who wants in-school learning,” Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.
“For far too long, the rhetoric of prioritizing educators went unmatched with policy, action or effort,” Weingarten continued. “But now, we have a science-based road map of mitigation, testing and vaccinations to get school buildings reopened safely and equitably.”
Not everyone sees teachers’ elevated priority status as a positive, however. Critics have pointed out that the focus on teachers shoves other high-risk groups to the side. Infectious disease physician Céline Gounder tweeted that the announcement was an “anti-equity move,” arguing that only high-risk teachers, like those over the age of 65 or ones who live with chronic medical conditions, should be prioritized.
“This means taking vaccine away from higher-risk persons and communities of color to vaccinate young healthy teachers,” Gounder wrote. “If you really want to target the highest-risk occupations, that would be farmworkers, or people working in meatpacking, food processing or prisons. These are far riskier in-person workplaces.”
With the first shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine going into arms earlier this week and millions of additional vaccine doses being sent to states, experts believe it’s possible to get most educators vaccinated this month. But schools across the country will need to adhere to additional measures in order to reopen in the safest way possible.
Anna Bershteyn, an assistant professor of population health at NYU Langone Health who has been advising New York City on school policies during COVID-19, says that vaccination is only one piece of the reopening puzzle. Even when all teachers and staff are vaccinated, school districts will need to adhere to strict Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines around mask-wearing, social distancing and ventilation. And that’s to say nothing of the frequent testing that, most health officials believe, needs to be part of any reopening effort.
“With all of those measures in place, it is safe to reopen schools when teachers are vaccinated,” Bershteyn said. “We know those measures are very effective. So the vaccination really strengthens that safety, and it gives the people who are at the highest risk of an adverse outcome that extra layer of protection.”
If the teacher vaccination campaign is successful, it may help pave the way for other aspects of life to return to something approximating normal. Bershteyn said the strongest defense will be vaccination in tandem with the precautions of the past year.
“Vaccination is like a slice of Swiss cheese, and it’s going to have some holes in it,” Bershteyn said. “But your mask is another slice of Swiss cheese and your distancing is another slice of Swiss cheese. You put enough imperfect slices of Swiss cheese together and you’re not going to have any holes anymore. Having all those layers there is what’s going to keep the virus out.”