School & District Management

School Workers May Get Early Shot at COVID-19 Vaccine. Will They Take It?

By Madeline Will — December 21, 2020 11 min read
Image of a COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution plan booklet

A growing number of states have said school employees will be near the front of the line to receive a coronavirus vaccine. But how many educators will take them up on the offer?

As states develop their vaccine rollout plans and some governors—including in Arizona, Kentucky, and Utah—announce plans to prioritize educators, many are hoping that the vaccination effort will make it easier and safer for schools to stay open for in-person instruction. While most students will not be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine any time soon, the adults in school buildings are at higher risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Concerns for their health and safety have led to pushback against reopening schools during the pandemic.

But although many school employees are eager to be inoculated against the coronavirus, there may be a sizable contingency of educators who refuse to take the vaccine, at least right away. A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey found that 17 percent of educators said they were “very” unlikely to take the vaccine, and 12 percent said they were “somewhat” unlikely. (A total of 913 district leaders, principals, and teachers took the online survey on Nov. 18 and 19.)

That’s largely in line with the general public: 27 percent of Americans say they probably or definitely would not get a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were available for free and deemed safe by scientists, according to a nationally representative Kaiser Family Foundation survey that was conducted Nov. 30 to Dec. 8. (Some surveys have found vaccine hesitancy to be even higher: An Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll that was conducted Dec. 3-7 found that 26 percent of American adults said they wouldn’t be vaccinated, and 27 percent said they weren’t sure.)

The Kaiser survey found that among those who are hesitant to get a vaccine, the main reasons are concerns about possible side effects, a lack of trust in the government to ensure the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness, concerns that the vaccine is too new, and concerns that the development process was politicized.

“In my gut, I don’t care what the science tells me—my gut says this has been raced to market, and we don’t know all the consequences,” said Bobby Padgett, a high school chemistry teacher in Gastonia, N.C.

His school is offering hybrid instruction, where half of the student body is on campus at once. Padgett is concerned about picking up the coronavirus at school: His wife is immunocompromised, so he strips his clothes off in the garage before entering the house and immediately showers.

Still, he can’t shake the feeling that the Trump administration has politicized the pandemic thus far, and that there hasn’t been enough time to fully understand any side effects from the vaccines. Padgett said he’d feel more comfortable getting the vaccine before the 2021-22 school year, after more data are available.

But experts have urged people to get vaccinated as soon as they can.

“If individuals, including teachers, choose not to take it, they’re choosing exposure [and] potential outcomes of COVID … over the vaccine, for which the benefits clearly outweigh the theoretical risks,” said Dr. Angela Shen, a visiting research scientist at the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an expert on public health and vaccines.

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While people’s concerns over the speed at which the coronavirus vaccines were developed are understandable, Shen said, the development process did not sacrifice safety or efficacy. Different phases of testing happened concurrently, which helped speed up the process—and there were “unprecedented public-private partnerships with hundreds of labs working on this, hundreds of companies working on this, and a $10 billion investment in making the vaccine,” she said.

There’s also a lot of data already to prove the vaccine’s safety, Shen said: Moderna and Pfizer, makers of the two vaccines now approved for emergency use in the United States, both had 30,000 participants in their vaccine trials, and millions of health-care workers will be vaccinated before most educators get a turn. And any serious adverse reactions would typically happen within six weeks—if not hours—after the dose, she said.

“The more folks that you have vaccinated [at school]—meaning your teachers, administrators, bus drivers, and things like that—the less community incidents with COVID you’ll have as the vaccine rolls out,” Shen said. “In short, your staff will be protected because they’re vaccinated, and the overall schools will be safer as a reflection of lower community prevalence as more and more people become vaccinated.”

Addressing Concerns

To increase the number of school employees who sign up to be vaccinated, Shen said school and district leaders need to understand reasons for hesitancy and address them head-on. They also should know who are the trusted messengers in the school community, she said.

“Folks go to people they trust: They trust their providers, or they trust their mentors, or they trust their principal or superintendent,” she said. “As you address the teachers’ concerns, you address it on their terms, and in doing so, you build trust, which builds their confidence.”

School and district leaders should also be aware that there’s a higher level of vaccine hesitancy among communities of color, which have disproportionately borne the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. A third of Black adults say they probably or definitely won’t get vaccinated, according to the Kaiser survey, and about half of that group say they don’t trust vaccines in general or they’re worried they may get COVID-19 from the vaccine.

Experts say the nation’s history of racism in medical research and inequities in access to health care is a key reason why Black and Latino people are distrustful of vaccines. For instance, many African Americans still remember the Tuskegee Study, in which federal researchers studied the progression of syphilis in Black men without treating the disease.

“Vaccine distribution planning and evidence-based campaigns must specifically address the disproportionate suffering and historical abuses in communities of color,” said National Education Association President Becky Pringle in a statement.

The NEA has urged federal, state, and local authorities to prioritize educators for early vaccine access, but Pringle said the distribution must be done safely and equitably. She said the national teachers’ union and its affiliates will “partner with civic organizations, community leaders, and families to share relevant and scientifically sound information on vaccines to help promote use among communities of color.”

Adrienne Khan, a 4th grade teacher in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., who is African American, said she’s reluctant to get a coronavirus vaccine right away—not because of what happened in the past, but because of the speed with which the vaccine was developed and the fear of possible side effects. She’s not anti-vaccine, and she gets the flu shot most years, she said, but she wants to make sure her doctor and others she trusts say the new vaccine is safe.

“It makes me uncomfortable because of how fast it got done,” she said.

Khan is diabetic and at high-risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Right now, she’s teaching remotely from her school’s campus. But that accommodation is set to end Jan. 11, Khan said, “even though my condition doesn’t change.” She can’t afford to take a medical leave, so she’s planning to buy scrubs and face shields to try and protect herself while teaching in person.

Still, the thought of being among the first wave of people to get the vaccine is disconcerting, Khan said, especially because she had a terrible reaction to the measles vaccine when she was 12.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that people who have a history of a severe allergic reaction to any of the components of a COVID-19 vaccine should not get it, and people who have had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine in the past should consult with their doctor.

Meanwhile, Amy Hruschak, a pre-K and kindergarten teacher at a private school near Cincinnati, said she would get a coronavirus vaccine when offered with “no question”—but she still has concerns about what teaching in person will be like once she is inoculated, since her students will not be vaccinated for some time. Pfizer and Moderna are now testing a coronavirus vaccine in children 12 and older, and vaccine approval for preschoolers and kindergartners could be many months away.

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Right now, Hruschak is teaching remotely. Her kids are learning remotely, and her husband works from home, too. Their exposure risk is low, but if she goes back to work, that could change.

“If I were to get the vaccine, could I then bring COVID home from one of my families from school?” Hruschak said. “Being vaccinated myself would protect me, but would that mean I could still bring it home to my husband? … I could still have my family at risk.”

Scientists are studying whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus. Shen said that until the results come out, schools should still require mask-wearing and social distancing, even if staff members are vaccinated.

“Vaccination itself is still the best way out of the pandemic, and it’s still decreasing the prevalence or the incidents of cases in your community,” she said.

A Vaccine Mandate?

Whether teachers will be required to get a coronavirus vaccine will be left up to states, and if they don’t weigh in, local school districts could make the decision.

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission has issued guidance saying that employers can require workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine, with exemptions for workers with certain medical conditions or religious beliefs. However, the coronavirus vaccines have so far only received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—meaning that individuals who receive the vaccine must have the option to accept or refuse it. That might complicate any sort of mandate until the vaccines receive full FDA authorization.

In a Dec. 15 webcast for Kentucky superintendents, Commissioner of Education Jason Glass said the state education department has no authority to require a vaccine—it would be up to the governor, and he hasn’t heard that Gov. Andy Beshear plans to do so. (A spokesperson for the governor’s office did not return EdWeek’s requests for comment.) That means local school districts could decide what to do, ideally in consultation with their legal counsel.

Beshear has said school employees in Kentucky could start receiving the vaccine in early 2021. There could be incentives to get the shot: Glass said the state education department has proposed that once a school employee is offered a chance to take the vaccine, the school district no longer has to allow them the ability to work remotely. The governor’s office will make the final decision on remote work in the age of the vaccine.

And if an educator in Kentucky decides they don’t want to be included on the initial roster to get the vaccine and later changes their mind, they will have to wait until the vaccine is available to the general public.

Some school leaders have said they wouldn’t feel comfortable issuing a mandate, but they hope to lead by example. Linda DeBerry, the principal of Dyersburg Primary School in Tennessee, said she would “stand up and volunteer” to take a coronavirus vaccine right away—but not all of her staff members agree. Some of her teachers have said they’d prefer to wait a while. The school is open for full-time, face-to-face instruction, and some school staff members have contracted the virus this year.

DeBerry hopes to have someone come into school to administer the vaccine to staff, like she does with the annual flu shot. That would make it convenient for the staff to take it—particularly since the vaccines are two doses, a few weeks apart—and hopefully increase opt-in rates. It would also help her keep track of who has been vaccinated.

“It would really put me at more ease,” DeBerry said. “One of the concerns I have right now is the position we’re putting teachers in at school every day. … I would never want anybody to be endangered by doing their job.”

And Matt Clifford, the principal of Greensburg Junior High School in Indiana, said a vaccine could help normalize school operations, in addition to keeping teachers safe. His school had 12 weeks of in-person instruction at the start of the school year, and then was forced to go remote at the end of October due to high community transmission rates and staffing challenges caused by quarantine requirements. Students came back to campus a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, and Clifford is hoping the school will be able to stay open.

In addition to taking the vaccine himself, he plans to disseminate information on the vaccine from the local health department directly to his staff, in hopes that the transparency and up-to-date information encourage his educators to take the vaccine. Right now, Clifford said, opinion is mixed.

“A public school is just a reflection of the community, and there’s division [about whether to take the vaccine] in our community, so there’s division in our school,” he said.

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