Editor’s note: The decision to fast-track vaccines for teachers has been fraught with both political and medical implications. Education Week Opinion reached out to two pediatricians from Duke University School of Medicine and a political scientist at Michigan State University to discuss the significance of prioritizing teachers for the vaccine and what it ultimately means for in-person learning.
A Medical Perspective: ‘We need a compelling public-health benefit to guide us to that choice’
By Danny Benjamin & Kanecia Zimmerman
Should teachers be a high priority for COVID-19 vaccinations? Yes, but for reasons that have more to do with protecting the community than with protecting those teachers alone.
Schools that use masks at nearly all times, maintain physical distance when possible, and ensure frequent handwashing are not superspreaders, even when it comes to student-to-staff transmission, our research and 15 other peer-reviewed studies find. The data from these studies do not make the case for prioritizing teachers because they and other school staff face higher risk for contracting COVID-19 at work. Their risk is equivalent to other adults in their communities.
Prioritizing any group for vaccination against COVID-19 costs those whose access is delayed as a consequence. We need a compelling public-health benefit—protecting higher-risk groups such as the elderly or our health-care workers who care for those infected—to guide us to that choice. The choice to vaccinate all adults in schools—not simply teachers but anyone working in schools including those who transport students to campus—reduces the likelihood of their infection, which keeps the students with whom they interact safer and thus entire neighborhoods by extension. In this way, prioritizing adults in school for vaccination amounts to a public-health force multiplier.
Vaccinating a 60-year-old with cardiovascular disease who works from home helps him and those around him; vaccinating a 60-year-old school bus driver with a similar health profile protects him, those around him, and the 100 or more students he transports twice a day. And the same holds true for school-based staff. An elementary school teacher sees dozens of children every day. A high school teacher may have six sections of more than 20 students each.
If we imagine the contact tracing needed after a school employee gets COVID-19 compared with someone with less public exposure, the public-health benefit becomes clear, including for families. An infection in a school means students must quarantine, and adults might have to miss work (whether they are working from home or not) as they scramble to accommodate those homebound kids.
Finally, practically speaking, prioritizing any group in a vaccination environment that’s already complex needs to take into account how simple and feasible it would be to execute. School employees are an easily identified group, and school systems have the physical spaces and nurses (in limited numbers in some places) to administer vaccines.
Vaccinating teachers and school staff doesn’t have to be a prerequisite to reopening schools safely. Well-planned masking, social distancing, and handwashing adhered to diligently are the real non-negotiables in our view. We can’t protect teachers and other adults in schools taking shortcuts on these critical mitigation measures. Taking an additional step to vaccinate those adults will reduce infection risk not only for them directly but for entire communities as well.
Danny Benjamin is a distinguished professor of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine focused on epidemiology therapeutics and the deputy executive director of the Duke Clinical Research Institute. Kanecia Zimmerman is an associate professor of pediatrics at Duke focused on critical-care research and a DCRI faculty member. They are co-principal investigators of the ABC Science Collaborative, which is funded through the National Institutes of Health.
A Political Perspective: ‘Let’s acknowledge that we cannot disentangle politics from these decisions’
By Sarah Reckhow
Politics has fully infected the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. The issue of whether and how to prioritize teacher vaccination is no exception—resulting in widely varied approaches in different states. Ohio’s governor announced that school personnel would be eligible for vaccination starting Feb. 1 if their district committed to in-person or hybrid schooling by March 1. In contrast, the governor of South Carolina stated that prioritizing educators for vaccination ahead of medically vulnerable populations would be “unethical, immoral, and absolutely unacceptable.”
Let’s acknowledge that we cannot disentangle politics from these decisions. Given that reality, teachers should have near-top priority for vaccination because the political value is immense. In the short term, prioritizing teacher vaccination responds directly to educators’ concerns, including thousands who have been teaching in person since the fall. Vaccination is also a top request from union officials in places where school reopening is still up for debate.
Most importantly, vaccinating educators can help restore confidence in public schools. A continuation of deeply contentious reopening debates throughout the spring would only fuel a downward spiral of diminishing confidence in public schools as safe and functional places for learning.
While commentators have argued that teachers and parents are at odds over reopening, a large share of parents—especially in major urban districts—are not comfortable sending their children to in-person school. For school reopening to matter for students, families need to have greater confidence about safety.
Political scientist Amy Lerman has written about the “public-reputation crisis” of American government. Right now, public schools face a public-reputation crisis of the highest order. Prior to the pandemic, Lerman’s data showed that Americans of both political parties had much lower opinions of public school quality than of private school quality.
The pandemic response has only deepened this reputational crisis. In cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Boston, private schools have been offering in-person education for months—a sharp contrast to the empty and shuttered public school buildings nearby.
Elected officials can begin to restore public trust by addressing the crisis head-on—taking responsibility and recognizing that educators’ and families’ confidence in school reopening is especially weak in many communities.
Vaccines provide a highly visible strategy for restoring confidence. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer prioritized teacher vaccination in early January. Half of Michigan teachers have received their first dose compared with only 18 percent of educators nationally. Whitmer’s approach demonstrated that safety for in-person school is a top-tier public priority, and the vaccinations ushered in a small wave of additional school district reopenings.
Vaccine priority shows that the work of public schools is highly valued at the highest levels—a crucial message for both educators and families right now.
Sarah Reckhow is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University. Her most recent book, with Jeffrey R. Henig and Rebecca Jacobsen, is Outside Money in School Board Elections: The Nationalization of Education Politics (2019).