AFT president backs COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students, says it offers ‘a silver lining’

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The head of the country’s second largest teachers union called for COVID-19 vaccines to be mandated for all students in public schools, with the Omicron variant rapidly taking hold across the country.

In an interview with Yahoo Finance Live, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten said the protection vaccines offered against the highly infectious variant acted as a "silver lining" for schools grappling with yet another winter surge, two years into the pandemic.

“If we know that vaccines are the single most important way of keeping people safe, keeping our kids safe, keeping our kids in school, keeping educators safe, if we know that and we get by the day, more information about how safe they are, then that's a way that we need to move,” she said.

School districts across the country have already begun imposing mandates for eligible students, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approving Pfizer-BioNTech’s two-shot COVID-19 vaccine for kids between 5- and 11-years-old in November.

California has moved most aggressively, announcing the state would add the COVID vaccine to the list of vaccinations required to attend school, once the doses receive full approval from the FDA.

Last week, the New Orleans School District expanded its mandate to include students age 5 and up, the first of its kind in the U.S. The vaccine mandate will go into effect on Feb. 1, even before Louisiana implements a statewide measure requiring all eligible students to receive the two-dose vaccine for the 2022-2023 school year.

Elementary schoolchildren wearing a protective face masks  in the classroom. Education during epidemic.
Elementary schoolchildren wearing a protective face masks in the classroom. Credit: Getty

“The only silver lining right now is that we know if vaccinated, they're not going to get really sick,” Weingarten said.

The debate over mandates is heating up as the Omicron variant fuels a new surge in infections across the U.S. Roughly 7.4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with case counts among the youngest patients increasing nearly 30% this month, according to data from American Academy of Pediatrics. Children accounted for nearly a quarter of all new cases, as of Dec. 16.

Yet, a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that parents of 5- to 11-year-olds remain divided in their support for mandates. While more than a quarter said they are eager to get a vaccine for their child, more than half said they are worried their children may be required to get a vaccine even if they don’t support it. Hesitant parents highlighted the unknown long-term effects and serious side effects of the vaccine as a key concern.

'Teachers are bone tired'

The debate in schools has spilled over into politics, with more than a dozen states passing measures banning legislation mandating the COVID-19 vaccine.

Weingarten, whose union represents 1.7 million members, said she is sensitive to parents’ concerns, adding that she would only push to mandate vaccines once the FDA gives full approval for use in young children, much like the measure passed in California.

Yet, she also said that schools face an increasingly fragile infrastructure, with teachers tasked with juggling a staffing shortage and navigating a hybrid learning environment, all while trying to protect themselves from incoming variants.

One in four American teachers have considered leaving their jobs, according to a survey conducted by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization.

That was at the end of the last academic year.

“Teachers are bone tired right now. And if there's one thing that I could wish for, for the new year, it is that the outside polarization and the forces that are attempting to create this division between teachers and parents, let them take a rest. It's not helpful to our kids,” Weingarten said. “There are things that we can do right now. But we have to make those issues of priority, including respecting that teachers are doing the best they can under really, really tough situations.”

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita

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