President Joe Biden is directing states to prioritize educators for the coronavirus vaccine, saying that he’s using “the full authority of the federal government” to challenge them to get teachers and other school staff at least one dose by the end of this month.
The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it is using the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to provide enough supply for states and local communities to fast-track school staff to get the vaccine. He said this program would start the week of March 8.
In a Tuesday speech, Biden said his challenge to states to prioritize school staff vaccinations reflects the need to get students back in school, calling it a “national imperative” to resume regular instruction.
“Let’s treat in-person learning like an essential service that it is,” Biden said.
He said that through this initiative, educators would be able to go to local pharmacies and sign up for the vaccine, although he cautioned that not all of them may get immediate access to the first shot. Biden said this priority would apply to pre-K-12 workers as well as child care workers.
As of March 1, 34 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have made some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, according to Education Week. States like Alabama, California, and Tennessee have also made other school staff eligible for the vaccine as well.
But some states’ efforts to vaccinate educators have been hindered by a slow supply. Biden said a new partnership, through which the Merck pharmaceutical company will help produce the vaccine created by rival Johnson & Johnson, will help address those concerns.
With that increased supply, the Biden administration announced that there will be enough COVID-19 vaccine supply for all American adults by the end of May.
This isn’t the first time the Biden administration has pushed for school staff to get the vaccine relatively early. To date, states have set their own priorities for what populations should be prioritized for early doses of the vaccines, and it’s not clear to what extent his announcement will supersede those priorities.
However, Biden said he was “directing every state” to prioritize educators for the vaccine, and that educators would be able to start signing up for vaccine appointments at over 9,000 pharmacies this month.
Under the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, certain retail pharmacies acquire vaccine directly from the federal government. They use this vaccine supply to provide shots at no cost. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says states and territories decide which populations are eligible for the vaccines under this program.
The two national teachers’ unions applauded Biden’s announcement.
“Today, this White House reminded us that they see us, they respect our efforts, and they truly understand that, in order to make school reopening a reality, we need the testing and vaccination infrastructure to do it,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.
And National Education Association President Becky Pringle said, “With promises of a vaccine, we have a new opportunity to create safe and just schools for every student,” although she added that vaccines would not solve the various challenges facing schools.
In December, a federal advisory panel said that states should include school staff in the second tier when it comes to vaccine priority, behind nursing home residents and medical personnel.
In recent weeks, Vice President Kamala Harris as well as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki have said that teachers should get priority for the vaccine.
In February, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said teacher vaccinations should not be a prerequisite to reopen school buildings. Biden made similar comments Tuesday, stressing that schools can reopen safely with appropriate precautions, but that vaccines will provide needed peace of mind to teachers concerned about returning to in-person learning.
CDC guidance for reopening schools released last month said that educator vaccinations were a strategy, but should not be considered essential to resuming in-person learning.
Although Biden stressed the importance of in-person classes to the well-being of children and parents, his administration has struggled to stake out a clear position on its goal for reopening schools.
Psaki caused a stir last month when she said the administration’s 100-day goal for most K-8 schools to hold in-person classes could be met if schools held just one day of traditional instruction a week. A week later in a town hall event televised by CNN, Biden disowned Psaki’s words, saying his goal is for most of those schools to hold in-person classes five days a week by April 30. At that event, Biden also said he wanted educators to be prioritized for the vaccine.