In order to get more teachers and school staff members vaccinated against the coronavirus, some district leaders are tempting them with raffles, jeans passes, and even cash.
School employees across the country have been eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine for more than a month now. But a sizable number of educators haven’t yet gotten the shot: A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey, conducted in late April, found that 16 percent of teachers and school and district leaders said they are not vaccinated and do not have an appointment.
While the survey did not follow up on why those educators have not made a vaccine appointment, the national pace of vaccinations has declined significantly in recent weeks. More than half of U.S. adults have already gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, but a swath of the population remains hesitant, and national survey data indicate that enthusiasm for the vaccine might be reaching a plateau.
In school districts, a higher vaccination rate among staff will lessen the chances of an outbreak, reduce the number of mandatory quarantines and the staffing disruptions those cause, and make many parents feel more comfortable sending their children back to the classroom. The COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective against the virus.
“A school system is an ecosystem in many ways, where everyone’s behavior can impact other people’s health and well-being,” said Sandra Crouse Quinn, a professor of family science at the University of Maryland and the senior associate director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity.
But most school districts are reluctant to require the new COVID-19 vaccines just yet. Instead, just as some cities and states are offering incentives—ranging from a cash bond to free beer to a chance to win a million dollars—to get the vaccine, so are some school districts.
Some districts are using federal relief dollars to pay bonuses
In Georgia, the Atlanta and Fulton County school districts held mass vaccination events with plenty of freebies to drum up excitement, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The Atlanta school district raffled off prizes, including tropical resort stays and gift cards for Delta Airlines. And teachers in Fulton County got a green commemorative T-shirt after they got their shot—and every time they wear it to school, they can also wear jeans.
The Detroit school district announced last month that teachers and other employees who plan to be vaccinated by June 30 will receive a $500 bonus and up to 16 hours of sick leave for any possible side effects.
“This incentive is a way to promote the greatest protections to all employees as we work to minimize the threat of COVID-19 while respecting an individual’s choice not to vaccinate,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a statement.
The district is using federal relief money to pay for bonuses. A spokeswoman said in an email that 42 percent of all full-time district staff, and 47 percent of teachers, have been vaccinated. The district saw an increase of about 500 employees reporting their vaccination after the incentive was offered.
The Anderson Community school district, near Indianapolis, is offering $150 to every employee who gets vaccinated. The district is using federal relief money to pay for the bonuses, which could add up to $150,000, the WTHR news station reports.
And in New Town, N.D., the school district began offering monetary awards for vaccination after fewer employees signed up to get the shots than officials had hoped. Around 65 percent of staff had initially chosen to get vaccinated, despite being able to get the vaccine during work hours and the district offering transportation to anyone who needed to get to the vaccine clinic.
“Even with strong encouragement, we weren’t getting the numbers that we felt would provide the safest environment for our students and staff,” Superintendent Beth Zietz said. “We felt like we needed to do something.”
The school board opted to give a $1,500 bonus to every employee who had already received the vaccine by March 23, and a $500 bonus for anyone who gets vaccinated this spring. The 1,000-student district, which is located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, used its oil and gas royalties to pay for the bonuses.
Now, about 75 percent of the district’s staff has gotten vaccinated—80 percent of teachers and 65 percent of support staff. Zietz said she would like to see more support staff get vaccinated, and is considering offering a 75-cent-an-hour pay raise for those classified employees who are vaccinated by the start of next school year. That proposal has not yet been approved by the board.
Education about the vaccines is key, experts say
Research shows that in order to motivate people to change their behavior, the incentive has to be something they value—like cash, Quinn said. A survey from the COVID-19 Health and Politics Project at the University of California Los Angeles found that a third of the unvaccinated population would be more likely to get the shot if they received a $100 bonus.
But incentives are just one piece of the puzzle, Quinn said. District leaders should also create opportunities for open dialogue and ongoing education about the vaccine. Unvaccinated staff might respond better to hearing directly from their trusted peers in the school community, rather than an impersonal message from an administrator, she said.
“People may have questions and concerns, and sometimes once they’re answered in a respectful way, they will move forward and get the vaccination,” Quinn said.
The Kaiser Family Foundation found that a lack of information is a barrier to getting vaccinated for many adults, particularly people of color. Black and Hispanic adults are more likely than white adults to have concerns about having to miss work due to side effects, having to pay out-of-pocket for the COVID-19 vaccine (which is free), or not being able to get the vaccine from a place they trust.
And of the adults who are reluctant to get vaccinated, at least right away, most believe or are unsure about at least one vaccine myth, such as that people can get COVID-19 from the vaccine or that the vaccines cause infertility.
Incentives, financial or otherwise, will not address these types of concerns or any barriers to vaccine access, said Harald Schmidt, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.
Instead, he said, district officials should try to understand exactly why their staff is not getting the vaccine and address those reasons head on.
“I would start with listening, rather than telling,” Schmidt said. “Using a financial incentive is a lot closer to saying, ‘I know what’s right for you.’ …. School leaders should signal, ‘We are interested in a culture of health, not just getting shots into arms. We are interested in trust and community support, not just telling PTAs that we have [staff] all vaccinated.’”
Building a culture of trust will also be helpful if a booster shot is eventually required, Quinn said.
“If districts are relying on incentives alone, then what happens when we need a booster?” she said. “Do we need to do incentives again?”
Her research on the flu vaccine has found that people are more likely to get the shot when a majority of people around them want them to be vaccinated. Quinn said district leaders should publicize the percentage of school staff who have already been vaccinated in hopes of establishing a norm.
Districts are hesitant to require the vaccine
The COVID-19 vaccines are under emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which says that recipients must be informed of their option to accept or refuse the shot. There has been some debate among legal experts over whether vaccination mandates are currently permissible under this emergency authorization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said whether an employer may require COVID-19 vaccination is a matter of state or other applicable law.
District leaders can require teachers to disclose whether they’ve been vaccinated, although they need to be careful asking follow-up questions to avoid infringing on employees’ medical privacy.
Success Academy, which operates 47 charter schools in New York City, is requiring all school staff to be fully vaccinated by the time they return to work for the next school year (for teachers, that will be July 19). A spokeswoman said in an email that the charter network is following in the footsteps of other organizations, including universities, that have mandated the vaccine for staff.
“Success Academy wants to make the return to school safe for everyone,” she said.
Even so, this is uncharted legal territory, and lawsuits against vaccine mandates are already cropping up. A group of Los Angeles Unified teachers and other employees have sued their district, alleging that the school system has indicated that receiving the COVID-19 vaccine would be a condition of their employment.
The district has not mandated vaccinations, a spokesperson said, but is instead providing access to all employees and encouraging them to get vaccinated. However, the district’s website says it is negotiating with its labor partners “regarding the impact of COVID-19 vaccination requirements.” (Superintendent Austin Beutner said in January that once the vaccine was available to children, students would be required to be vaccinated to attend classes in person. But the district has since walked back that proposal.)
“We expect in time, like tests for tuberculosis or vaccines for the measles, mumps, and whooping cough, the COVID vaccine will be essential to keeping school safe,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “One should expect federal and state health authorities to take actions in this area in the coming months.”
Still, district leaders should provide education and establish trust with their staff before imposing any mandates, Quinn said: “I think the carrot is always better as a place to start.”