Several weeks after the new CDC guidance on school reopening came out, the country continues to debate whether teachers and other school staff should be prioritized to receive the vaccine against the coronavirus. In the meantime, facts are changing on the ground. Thirty-four states are now including school staff among those currently eligible for vaccine, increased from 24 states a few weeks prior, and some, like California, are earmarking specific doses just for educators. Although demand from all eligible groups continues to outstrip supply, more and more teachers are able to sign up for vaccine and are getting vaccinated.
In some localities, where teachers’ fears about returning to school buildings have been a major reason why districts have been partially or fully shuttered, vaccinating teachers may make a real difference. But it is not only teachers who have fears; it is also many parents. Vaccinating teachers does little to address the concerns of some parents who continue to feel that the school building is not safe for their children and their families.
Even as evidence builds about how in-person instruction can happen safely and concerns grow about the deleterious academic and mental-health impact for some children who are not physically in a classroom, a significant number of parents are not sending their children to in-person school, even when that option is available. Chicago saw fewer than 1 in 5 students eligible for in-person learning return to the classroom, a reflection of parent concerns. Philadelphia has seen the same, with only one third of eligible families electing in-person learning, when it’s available
While parents who are keeping their children at home come from all ethnic groups and income brackets, parents of color are disproportionately more likely to do so. In one national survey conducted in July and cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 percent of Black parents and 50 percent of Hispanic parents agreed that schools should reopen in person for all students last fall, compared with 62 percent of white parents. In that same survey, Black parents were also more concerned than white parents about compliance with mitigation practices in schools, about their child contracting COVID-19, and about their child bringing COVID-19 home from school.
And parents of color are acting on these fears. In another survey that was conducted November through December, parents of Black and Hispanic students eligible for in-person instruction elected for this option 20 percent and 9 percent less often, respectively, than white parents. In the District of Columbia, parents in the city’s poorest—and predominantly African American—ward were twice as likely as parents in the city’s wealthiest, predominantly white ward to reject an offer to send their child to in-person elementary school.
If parents believed that public schools were not doing right by many children of color before the pandemic, why should parents now feel confident that these same schools can adequately protect their children now?
There are likely many reasons why this is the case. But at least some of those reasons are rooted in the same history and ongoing experience of structural racism that provide good reasons now for communities of color to broadly distrust government institutions, including public education. If parents believed that public schools were not doing right by many children of color before the pandemic, why should parents now feel confident that these same schools can adequately protect their children now? And perhaps especially now, when their communities have seen so much more death and suffering from the pandemic, and police brutality and racial hatred are in full display.
As Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent-advocacy group in Tennessee put it in a recent New York Times article, “For generations, these public schools have failed us and prepared us for prison, and now it’s like they’re preparing us to pass away. We know that our kids have lost a lot, but we’d rather our kids be out of school than dead.”
Vaccinating teachers will not alone allay the fears of these parents. Ensuring that their children’s schools satisfy the Biden administration’s benchmarks for universal masking, hand washing, physical distancing, contact tracing, cleaning, and ventilation would likely help. However, even with a much needed infusion of federal dollars, it will be hard for at least some of these schools—those that are old, overcrowded, and have substandard infrastructures—to make the grade. Moreover, another critical Biden administration benchmark for safe school reopenings, that rates of COVID-19 infection in the community be very low, is not likely to be reached in many communities of color before this school year ends.
One of the emerging conversations around school reopenings suggests that some parents may choose not to return their children to public school classrooms even if the United States were to reach full teacher vaccination status. For some families, the continuation of virtual learning has meant that they have created alternatives such as microschools, unschools, and learning pods to provide education for their children throughout the duration of the pandemic and that they may be loath to return however many teachers are vaccinated. Other families have chosen to enroll their children in independent schools that have already reopened for in-person learning.
For all these reasons, even as more school buildings open over the coming months, sizable numbers of public schoolchildren are likely not to be in attendance. For these children, and perhaps for all children, we should be keeping our eyes not on what remains of the current academic year but on getting off to the best possible start of the new school year, in the fall.
Soon, and certainly in time for next fall, vaccine should be widely available to parents and even older students. For some parents, knowing that they and their children, as well as older relatives, are all vaccinated should address COVID-19 fears. Of course, for some of the same structurally unjust reasons that some parents of color distrust public schools, they also distrust public-health institutions and the COVID-19 vaccine. In the African American community, both access to the vaccine and uptake of the vaccine lag behind rates in white communities. Intensive, equity-specific vaccination efforts are now underway, however; and there are reasons to think that vaccination rates in communities of color are rising and will continue to increase.
The question of whether teachers should be prioritized for vaccine is fast becoming moot. Let’s focus instead on what needs to be done now to make sure that in the fall every school building will be a safe and healthy place for every child. And not just COVID-19-safe and healthy but broadly safe and healthy. How else to earn the trust of all parents that being back in school is the best place for their kids to be?
A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as Vaccinating Teachers Is Just One Part of the Reopening Puzzle