Teachers around the country can now get the COVID-19 vaccine, but there’s no way of knowing how many are currently inoculated against the virus. Even school and district leaders don’t always know which of their staff has been vaccinated—raising questions about safety, privacy, and logistics.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that teacher vaccinations are not a prerequisite for reopening school buildings, many teachers’ unions have resisted resuming in-person instruction until a majority of staff have gotten their shots. Some parents are also reluctant to send their children back into school buildings until the staff is vaccinated, especially since vaccines will not be available for young students until probably next year.
To address these concerns, President Joe Biden and many state leaders have rushed to prioritize teachers for the vaccine. Yet many vaccination sites do not collect or report occupation data, and many districts are not tracking vaccination rates themselves. Some district leaders say they’re wary of asking employees if they’ve gotten vaccinated because they don’t want to run afoul of any privacy laws, although the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that employers can ask whether employees have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine.
The National Education Association surveyed more than 3,000 of its nearly 3 million members and found that about half have gotten at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and just 11 percent say they won’t be vaccinated at all. But it’s impossible to break down teacher vaccination rates by state: No states are publicly reporting the percentage of teachers and other school staff who have been vaccinated, according to an analysis by Johns Hopkins University.
Right now, “there’s this push to reopen schools, and there’s a large proportion of people saying teacher vaccines need to be a critical part of the process,” said Megan Collins, the co-director of the Johns Hopkins Consortium for School-Based Health Solutions.
Yet there’s no clear data on how many educators are already vaccinated, she said, adding that increased transparency could help district leaders make more-responsive back-to-school decisions, and make teachers and parents feel more comfortable with resuming in-person instruction.
“I suspect that states are going to have to start grappling with this question more and more,” Collins said. “It has significant implications for the operation of schools.”
There are some statewide pushes underway for more and better data. In a Feb. 22 press conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the more school staff are vaccinated, the more comfortable teachers will feel returning to the classroom.
“The question is, how many have been vaccinated, and how many are in class and teaching?” he said. “I think we need clarity on that matter because opening schools is very important … for children, which we know, and it has economic consequences beyond that.”
The governor’s office is now working with county health departments to track the progress of teacher vaccination rates. The state department of health is reviewing the data collected so far before publishing it, a spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, the Texas Education Agency, in partnership with the Texas Department of State Health Services, launched a campaign this month to try and track the state’s progress in vaccinating school staff. The education agency has asked school systems to submit a weekly report about what portion of their staff is able to make an appointment to get the vaccine. The agency will use the data collected to identify any school districts that need additional support to meet their goal.
Districts struggle with tracking teacher vaccinations
In Chicago, vaccinations were a huge sticking point ahead of the district reopening its elementary and middle schools early this month. (The district hopes to bring high school students back to classrooms next month.) The school system has now made all employees eligible to get vaccinated at the district-run sites, but data on how many employees have gotten their first shot are limited since employees can also get vaccinated at independent sites.
The Chicago Board of Education approved a measure last month that requires employees to tell the district whether they’ve been vaccinated. But so far, the district’s survey of employees has only garnered a 41 percent response rate, the Chicago Tribune reported last week. The Chicago Teachers Union asked its members to wait to respond to the district’s vaccination survey until the union leadership had bargained with the district about remote accommodations for high-risk educators now that many have been vaccinated.
If school districts know exactly how many teachers have been vaccinated, teachers’ unions will have less room to negotiate the return to classrooms, said Bradley Marianno, a professor of educational policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“It’s an information battle,” he said. “From the union’s standpoint, it takes away a bargaining advantage if the district knows to what extent the teaching force has been vaccinated.”
But from the district’s standpoint, Marianno said, that information is helpful not only for negotiations but for protecting the health and safety of their employees as they work to reopen school buildings.
And parents want to know this information, too. When the Coxsackie-Athens Central school district, located about 20 miles south of Albany, N.Y., surveyed parents whose children are still learning remotely about what it would take for them to feel comfortable resuming in-person instruction, 43 percent said they’d feel better if all staff were vaccinated.
Superintendent Randy Squier said he plans to let parents know approximately what percentage of district staff has been vaccinated. But he doesn’t know which individual staff members have been vaccinated, and he said he doesn’t need to know. The one exception would be if there were a positive COVID-19 case in the school, because any vaccinated adult who was exposed would not need to quarantine if asymptomatic, in accordance with CDC and New York state guidance.
Richard Calkins, the superintendent of Pocantico Hills Central school district in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., said the majority of his employees have shared their vaccination statuses with the school nurses. But some staff want to keep their status confidential, he said, and he hasn’t mandated the disclosure.
“One scary aspect of the vaccination process is there’s vaccination shaming” of those who decline to get a shot, Calkins said. “I think that societal pressures can be really difficult. … There are [also] certainly health aspects where people should probably not get vaccinated, and teachers do not share that.”
The CDC has said anyone who has ever had a severe or immediate allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in the three approved COVID-19 vaccines should not receive that vaccine. While experts believe that COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to pose a risk to a pregnant person or a fetus, the vaccines have not been extensively studied in pregnant people. (Emerging research, however, shows that pregnant people who get vaccinated pass along immunity to their babies.) The CDC suggests that pregnant people consult with their doctor about getting vaccinated.
Calkins is waiting for more guidance from the state health department on how to navigate this uncharted territory: “The balance between safety and [privacy] rights and health concerns is on everyone’s mind,” Calkins said.