Hundreds of thousands of teachers and principals are disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19—presenting a challenge for school districts as they begin to consider how to reopen school buildings.
Federal data show that about 18 percent of all teachers and 27 percent of all principals are older than age 55. That age group accounts for about 92 percent of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although adults who are 65 and older are most at risk. New evidence also suggests that children can transmit the coronavirus, which has prompted many people—including President Donald Trump—to say that vulnerable educators should stay home when schools reopen.
A new report by the American Enterprise Institute examines the “wide-ranging implications” for schools, state by state, given that it might not be safe for many educators to return to school buildings until a vaccine is developed. This could lead to districts having to come up with alternative staffing plans, as well as figuring out how to address potential teacher shortages.
The severity of the problem will vary by state, according to an AEI analysis of federal data. In Hawaii, for instance, 45 percent of principals are 55 and older, compared with only 9 percent in Illinois. More than a quarter of public school teachers in Maine and New Mexico are in this age group, compared with just 10 percent in Colorado and 8 percent in Kentucky.
There is no federal data on age for many other school workers, including paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, administrative staff, and counselors. But many of those staffers are likely at risk as well. And in addition to age, the CDC lists asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes, serious heart conditions, chronic kidney disease, severe obesity, immunocompromised conditions, and liver disease as among the risk factors for COVID-19.
In the AEI report, authors John P. Bailey and Jessica Schurz proposed several possible solutions to keeping vulnerable educators safe:
- State and local leaders could prioritize teachers for COVID-19 and antibody testing.
- Educators should have personal protective equipment, including gloves, face masks, hand soap and sanitizer, and disinfectant. School buildings should be deep-cleaned regularly.
- High-risk teachers could provide online instruction or remote tutoring and mentoring, even if their students are in the school building.
- If there’s more widespread availability of COVID-19 testing, students who test negative could be assigned to vulnerable teachers for instruction or small-group activities.
- States and school districts could offer early retirement to at-risk educators.
- School districts could partner with teacher-preparation programs so that teacher-candidates can help fill staffing gaps. For example, a candidate could be paired with a vulnerable teacher who’s staying home.
- States could adjust teacher certification requirements and reciprocity agreements, so a teacher who’s staying home can teach online in a different state.
For more on how vulnerable educators are feeling about the possibility of returning to school in the fall, see this Education Week article.
Image: Custodial workers from Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., use electrostatic disinfectant sprayers to deep clean at Wetherbee Elementary School on March 18. —Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.