Over the last few months, a growing number of states have begun prioritizing teachers for coronavirus vaccines in the hopes of bringing more kids back to school in person. Then just this week, President Joe Biden directed all states to make school staff eligible for vaccines, setting a goal of getting all educators their first doses by the end of March.
But survey data from the two national teachers’ unions reveal stark inequities within the vaccine rollout so far. Black educators, the data show, are less likely to be vaccinated than their white peers.
The president’s announcement is likely to change the calculus on who gets shots and how quickly, but the early discrepancies in vaccine access, among other things, could be felt for some time.
The National Education Association found that its white and Hispanic members were nearly twice as likely as Black members to have been vaccinated—20 percent and 17 percent, respectively, compared to 9 percent. And the American Federation of Teachers found that 77 percent of its white members were either already vaccinated or will be soon, compared to 64 percent of Hispanic members and 46 percent of Black members.
(The NEA polled 3,305 active K-12 members and 117 higher education members Jan. 5-Feb. 3, and the AFT surveyed 600 public school teachers and 200 paraprofessionals and other school staffers Feb. 4-6.)
“That is a disturbing part of the data we collected,” said NEA President Becky Pringle, who is Black. Though the reasons educators of color are less likely to be vaccinated, she said, are probably in line with the general population.
Across the board, people of color are getting vaccinated at lower rates than white people. As of March 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention knew the demographic data for 54 percent of the more than 50 million people who had received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Of that group, about 65 percent were white, 9 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were Black, and 5 percent were Asian.
The Kaiser Family Foundation analyzed vaccination rates by state, and found that across the 34 states that have reported data on vaccinations by race and ethnicity, there is a consistent pattern of Black and Hispanic people receiving smaller shares of vaccinations compared to their shares of cases and deaths and compared to their shares of the total population.
The coronavirus pandemic has had an outsized effect on communities of color, killing Black and Hispanic Americans at higher rates than white Americans.
Inequities in the vaccine rollout
Across the country, the vaccine rollout has been plagued by racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic inequities, with residents of affluent areas getting vaccinated at higher rates than those in low-income neighborhoods.
Pringle said those inequities could be flowing down to school districts, too.
“Our Black and brown members are more likely to teach in urban areas. They feel very strongly that they want to give back to their communities, so they are over-represented in those schools,” she said. “The challenges that we’re seeing in those communities as it relates to equitable distribution of vaccines is very real, and it’s real for them, too.”
Also, in many places, vaccine appointments have to be booked online, and only a limited number are available—at times creating a lottery system that benefits those who have reliable internet access and time to consistently hit refresh.
“We learned in our survey that a lot of our educators ... have experienced great stress and confusion around vaccinations, where to get them, when they qualify—that has not been clear,” Pringle said.
And essential workers might not be able to spend hours online hunting for an appointment or take time off work to stand in line, she said. The AFT survey found that school support staff—including bus drivers, custodians, and food service workers—are less likely than teachers to say they are already vaccinated or will get vaccinated soon.
Another issue: Communities of color are less likely to have access to high-quality health care. Black and Hispanic adults are disproportionately uninsured or publicly insured, and the Washington Post reported that inequities in health-care access are deepened by barriers such as transportation.
“We have a fractured health-care system,” Georges C. Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, told the Post. “If you’ve got to take two buses and walk a few blocks, plus hesitancy, where is the incentive to go get that shot?”
The Biden administration announced this week that educators across the country would be able to start signing up for vaccine appointments at more than 9,000 pharmacies this month. The Post reported that pharmacies have been touted as a possible solution to access gaps in underserved communities, and more than 90 percent of Americans live within 5 miles of a pharmacy.
Still, the Post notes that 5 miles can be a significant barrier for people without cars who live in areas without reliable public transportation or sidewalks. As Education Week has reported, some experts say that opening up schools as community vaccination sites could be one way to improve access to the vaccine.
How much is vaccine hesitancy a factor?
Surveys show that communities of color are more likely to be skeptical of the vaccine. The United States has a history of racism in health care and medical abuse targeting people of color.
Still, Pringle urged caution against pinning the discrepancies in vaccination rates solely on vaccine hesitancy.
“Sometimes we make narratives become reality,” she said. “I want to be really careful about describing the Black community, the brown community, and communities of color monolithically and saying that they are all hesitant to get the vaccine when that’s not the case in every situation. We don’t want a narrative that suggests we don’t want it, because we’re seeing that narrative being out there, and then others coming and taking our spot.”
A Kaiser Family Foundation report published Feb. 26 shows that over the past few months, vaccine enthusiasm has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, although white people are still the most likely to want to get the vaccine right away.
The survey found that 61 percent of white adults, about half of Hispanic adults, and 41 percent of Black adults have already gotten the vaccine or plan to get it as soon as possible. About a third of Black adults say they want to wait and see how the vaccine is working, compared to 26 percent of Hispanic adults and 18 percent of white adults.
Smaller percentages of each racial and ethnic group say they definitely won’t get the vaccine.
KFF reported that many of the Black and Hispanic adults who want to “wait and see” say that they are concerned about getting COVID-19 from the vaccine, having to miss work due to side effects, having to pay out of pocket, or not being able to get the vaccine from a place they trust.
Pringle said schools and local teachers’ unions should partner with community leaders, civic organizations, and others who are trying to both educate their communities about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine and address some of these roadblocks to getting vaccinated.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’re looking at it as a complex issue and resolving it at that level of complexity,” Pringle said. “That’s what equity is about, addressing those issues, those barriers.”