Teachers should be near the front of the line for access to a coronavirus vaccine, according to unions, school officials and state lawmakers who say educators’ immunity is key to safely reopening schools for in-person classes.
Giving educators their turn, just after the first wave of vaccines goes to health care workers and nursing home residents, would help schools get more students back in physical classrooms, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which also represents health care workers.
School staff and at-risk students should be part of that group, as well, she added, in a comment submitted Thursday to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Vaccine trials for children are ongoing or just beginning.
“The vaccine must be readily available to them on site to allow for the safe, orderly and timely reopening of schools,” she wrote in the comment, shared with POLITICO.
The vaccine advisory committee on Tuesday recommended that the first doses of coronavirus vaccine go to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities, calling them “Phase 1a.” Discussion slides from the meeting this week show the committee is considering the education sector and other essential workers for the next priority tier, “Phase 1b,” which Weingarten said she supports.
The committee will refine and finalize its full recommendations for vaccine distribution and use after the FDA authorizes any vaccines, and then the recommendations will go to CDC Director Robert Redfield for his sign-off.
Given the limited initial supply of vaccines and the surging U.S. outbreak, determining priority will be crucial. So far 14 million people in the country have been infected and nearly 276,000 have died.
Giving adults in school systems priority access to vaccinations will be “critical” to fully reopening school buildings for instruction — and to generating trust in the vaccination program with the education community serving as a “trusted messenger,” the AFT; wrote the National Education Association; AASA, the School Superintendents Association; and several other education groups in a Monday letter to the CDC advisory committee.
“Our students need to come back to school safely, educators want to welcome them back, and no one should have to risk their health to make this a reality,” the groups wrote.
The groundswell for prioritizing teachers isn’t just coming from education groups.
In California, a bipartisan pair of state lawmakers said Wednesday that teachers and school staff should be in line to receive Covid-19 vaccinations after those in health care and congregant care facilities.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, said teachers will be among the first in his state to get the shots, along with health care workers.
"We want our schools open and our teachers protected," he said Wednesday. "We know that our teachers desperately want to get back into their classrooms safely. Teachers are essential to our state so under our plan they will be prioritized."
Even when the CDC issues its recommendations, allocation priorities ultimately will be up to governors. “You can be sure that different governors are going to be recommending different things,” said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
There are still open questions for school administrators, including whether school districts can require teachers to be vaccinated, he said. Another looming question is whether the vaccine can be required for students, especially when some parents don’t allow their children to be vaccinated at all, he said.
“We saw what happened with the measles situation this past year,” he said of outbreaks. “They did not have the measles vaccine, and they were getting sick.”
Weingarten’s comments to the committee focused on recommendations for the first wave of vaccines, which is what the committee is considering now. She said she will provide more input on the next phase of vaccine delivery, but for now, she recommended that vaccine distribution and administration be prioritized by the status of the school — whether they’re open or anticipate opening.
She also encouraged the committee to consider adding not only students in the priority candidate list, but their families, as well, during Phase 1b.
In an interview, she did not suggest that reopening schools should be contingent upon a vaccine. Once the latest viral surge declines, it makes sense to bring back students who are younger or that have special needs — with the proper safeguards — and then add other groups as a vaccine becomes more broadly available, said Weingarten, who has been promoting a blueprint for safely reopening schools.
“As part of school opening, vaccination should be available to those kids and to those families, and to those educators, almost like you would be doing in terms of contact tracing,” she told POLITICO.
David Lim contributed to this report.