While it’s appropriate to give teachers priority access to scarce early COVID-19 vaccine doses, schools need not wait until all educators are fully vaccinated to reopen, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.
A federal vaccine advisory board has recommended that educators and school employees be targeted for early doses, and many states have followed those recommendations in their plans, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters at a press briefing.
“But I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” she said.
The statement does not represent a reversal. CDC has never said all teachers should be vaccinated before in-person learning can resume.
But, as some large districts in areas like Chicago and Fairfax, Va., continue ongoing discussions about how to bring students back to buildings, some teachers have pressed for delays until they receive both doses of the two-dose regimen. That may take some time as a slower-than-projected federal vaccine rollout is hampered by concerns about supplies and logistics.
So while the Biden administration works to expedite vaccine efforts to more effectively reach targeted populations, “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” Walensky stressed.
Asked for a response Wednesday, a spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers said the union agreed with Walensky and takes a position that vaccine distribution should be “aligned with reopening,” targeting vaccines to elementary school teachers in areas that are seeking to reopen earlier grades first, for example. A January opinion piece cowritten by AFT President Randi Weingarten called for frequent testing to monitor transmission in schools, even before the vaccine is widely available. That’s a key priority for the Biden administration.
Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, said in a statement that vaccines and rapid tests can be “gamechangers for safe in-person instruction” that must be made “broadly and equitably available” and accompanied by school mitigation efforts.
“The National Education Association strongly stands behind educators who have determined that they need access to COVID-19 vaccines to ensure that their workplaces are safer, whether they are currently working in person or will be returning to school buildings,” Pringle said, “and educators need to have access to COVID-19 vaccines now, period.”
In her comments about the safety of school reopenings, Walensky appeared to cite recent research that found limited documented cases of COVID-19 in schools that took extensive mitigation steps, like keeping small groups of students in classroom cohorts to limit the risk of transmission within the building. Some educators have said those conditions are difficult to replicate in aging and crowded buildings.
Walensky’s statement came the same day Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, faced questions during his confirmation hearing about the administration’s push to reopen a majority of K-8 schools within its first 100 days. Cardona stressed the need for clear guidance and support for schools as they transition back into in-person instruction.
But some teachers have said they fear returning to buildings without assurances their districts’ virus-prevention efforts will be effective, particularly as new, more contagious variants of the virus spread in the United States.
At a later briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed that Walensky’s comments were not official CDC policy. She said the agency’s positions on reopening will be detailed in upcoming guidance.