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Policy & Politics

Some States Order Schools to Be Open. But Teachers Can’t Yet Get the Vaccine

By Sarah Schwartz — January 15, 2021 4 min read
A syringe is prepared with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Coral Gables, Fla, on Jan. 12, 2021.
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When will teachers and school staff be able to receive the coronavirus vaccine? The answer differs from state to state.

As outlined in Education Week’s new vaccine tracker, in most states, teachers aren’t yet eligible to get the shot—37 states and D.C. either haven’t started vaccinating teachers yet or haven’t indicated when they will do so.

In six states—Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, Michigan, Hawaii, and New York—teachers are eligible to be vaccinated now. And six states have opened up vaccines to some teachers, either by location or age bracket. (One state, Vermont, is only prioritizing vaccination by age and health risks, not occupation.)

In states where schools are required to remain open, though, the decision about when to allow teachers to get the vaccine has fueled ongoing debates about the preconditions necessary to mandate that teachers enter buildings.

Four states—Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, and Texas—currently require that in-person instruction be available to all students, either full- or part-time. A fifth, West Virginia, recently announced that all elementary and middle schools must be open at least two days a week for in-person instruction starting Jan. 19.

Opening more physical classrooms to students means that more teachers may have to come into schools. Some districts have denied many teachers’ requests to work remotely, even if the teachers have underlying health conditions, in order to adequately staff in-person classes for the number of students who have chosen to return to school buildings.

In two of these four states, teachers are slated to start receiving vaccines in the next few weeks. In Arkansas, school staff are part of phase 1b, which will begin on Jan. 18 (school nurses, specifically, are currently eligible to be vaccinated).

And Iowa teachers are also in their state’s 1b phase, scheduled to begin “no later than the first of February,” according to a press release from the department of public health.

In the other two states, though, it’s not clear when teachers will be able to get appointments.

Florida is currently prioritizing health care workers, long-term care workers, and people 65 and older. Texas is also prioritizing those groups in phases 1a and 1b, but the state department of health hasn’t yet announced when teachers younger than 65 will be able to get the vaccine. Texas school nurses are currently able to get vaccinated as part of group 1a, which includes health-care workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that teachers should be included among the “frontline essential workers” who are prioritized in states’ next phase of vaccinations.

Christy Clark, a high school English teacher in Manatee County, Fla., said she was disappointed but not surprised that teachers weren’t included in the first phases of vaccine distribution in her state.

“It’s just kind of like one more blow to me,” during a year when she’s felt that teachers haven’t been given adequate support and protection to do their jobs, she said.

Clark, 48, said she knows that students benefit from in-person instruction. She wants to be teaching in the building. She also wouldn’t want to file for an exemption for fear that she would take a slot away from someone who needed to work remotely more than her—like a teacher who was immunocompromised, or a cancer survivor.

But if teachers are going to be treated like essential workers, forced to do their jobs in person, they should get priority for the vaccine alongside health-care workers and the elderly, she said.

“For our governor to just dismiss an entire group of people that are required to be back to work, in close proximity—I see 100 plus kids a day in an enclosed space—it’s concerning,” Clark said.

Schools, Unions, Ask for Teachers to Be Given Priority

Teachers’ unions and some districts in these states have started advocacy, making the same case as Clark: that if teachers are going to be required to be in school buildings, they need to be higher on the vaccine priority lists.

In a statement released Jan. 11, the Texas State Teachers Association urged Gov. Greg Abbott to add teachers to the state’s priority list, and said that schools should be allowed to switch to fully remote instruction, without losing state funding, until educators are vaccinated.

Also this week, the Pinellas and Orange County school boards in Florida sent letters to Gov. DeSantis, asking that teachers be prioritized in vaccine distribution.

In the meantime, some districts in these two states are mobilizing to get staff members who are age 65 and older vaccinated. In the Austin school district, staff in this prioritized age group started receiving shots in early January.

And even though younger teachers in Texas and Florida aren’t prioritized for vaccination currently, a few have managed to get the shot anyway. One hospital in the San Antonio area said they had “occasionally given doses” to teachers in order to be “good stewards of the vaccines that were allotted to us,” according to local news station KSAT 12.

Other public officials and health-care workers have found themselves in similar situations, with more doses of the vaccine available than high-priority patients signed up to receive it. In Knox County, Ind., for example, some teachers were able to get vaccinated ahead of schedule because only a small portion of the county’s frontline health-care workers registered.

So far, vaccine rollout in some states has been chaotic, with eligible recipients unable to figure out how to sign up for appointments, seniors waiting overnight in long lines at clinics, and vaccines expiring after being removed from cold storage and not being used.

These logistical bottlenecks worry Clark, the Florida teacher.

“With the disaster with the rollout that’s been here in Florida, even if everyone 65 and older can get the vaccine, they’re still camping out overnight,” she said. “So how long will it be until the rest of population, not just teachers, can get it?”

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