About half of states have started vaccinating teachers against the coronavirus, spurring excited selfies and sighs of relief. But in the rest of the country, teachers are still waiting—and for some, there is no end in sight.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that school staff be included in phase 1b of vaccination programs, alongside frontline workers and people age 75 and older, and after health-care workers and residents in long-term care facilities. But states ultimately make their own plans.
Several states, including Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas, have veered away from the CDC recommendations, instead basing vaccine eligibility on age and health conditions. And in some states that have begun vaccinating teachers, not every educator is eligible. At least five states and Washington, D.C., have prioritized K-12 teachers over early-childhood educators, many of whom have worked in person throughout much of the pandemic.
“It is super frustrating and a little bit demoralizing that we are working so hard in the middle of a global pandemic, and we’re not being taken care of,” said Lisa Ellis, a high school journalism teacher in Blythewood, S.C., and the founder of the grassroots teachers’ group SCforED, which is pushing the state to move teachers up in the vaccine rollout. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, recently announced that people aged 65 and older could skip the line ahead of teachers and other essential workers in phase 1b and begin scheduling their vaccine appointments.
“If you’re going to put teachers in a situation where their health is at risk, you need to vaccinate them to mitigate that concern,” said Ellis, referring to McMaster’s push for five days a week of in-person school.
State policymakers say they have a limited supply of the vaccine, and they have to make hard choices about who gets it first. Some also point to research, including by the CDC, that show that in-person school can be done safely, especially with younger children. On Wednesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that vaccinating teachers is “not a prerequisite for safely reopening schools.”
However, school leaders have said that vaccinations will help them reopen for in-person instruction much faster, since staffing shortages due to quarantine requirements have forced some districts to stay virtual. And many teachers say being vaccinated is key to making them feel more comfortable going back into school buildings.
“Your basic feeling of being safe [at work] is non-existent this year—that makes teaching so much more difficult,” Ellis said, adding that a vaccine “would go a long way toward making teachers feel better, feel safer.”
Samantha Brehm, a kindergarten teacher in Jericho, Vt., said she was “truly shocked” her state didn’t include teachers in a priority group.
After vaccinating health-care workers, first responders such as ski patrol and police officers, and residents and staff at nursing homes, Vermont is now prioritizing distribution based on age and health risks. More than 90 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state are people age 65 or older.
“I understand the state prioritizing [those at risk of dying]—you have to—but I thought … teachers would still be included in the next phase. I didn’t think it would be a complete shutout,” Brehm said.
The state is simply trying to meet its “number one goal in this emergency: to save lives,” Jason Maulucci, the press secretary for Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, wrote in an email. “Expanding to a broader population based on jobs and sectors would distract us from this mission, and given the limited supply, would make little impact on stopping the spread of the virus to our most vulnerable.”
To protect educators’ safety, Vermont has launched a surveillance testing program that gives every school employee the opportunity to be tested once a month. Still, only about 40 percent of school staff opt in to be tested, and Brehm said she believes fuller data would show the need to vaccinate school staff.
Brehm, who has been teaching in person since October, started a petition asking Scott to prioritize teachers and school staff, which now has more than 5,000 signatures. While she said her district has done a great job of providing personal protective equipment and implementing safety precautions, she would feel a lot more comfortable if she were vaccinated, especially given the new, more contagious strains of coronavirus that are circulating.
“Kids deserve to be in school, teachers want to be in school, parents expect it, and the state of Vermont is doing everything possible to make that happen—except vaccinate us,” she said.
Discrepancies over which educators get vaccinated
The uneven vaccination rollout has also led to questions about which types of educators are eligible. Are substitute teachers in the same group as full-time teachers? Where do private school teachers fall? In some places, these questions are being sorted out in real time on the ground.
Nicola Soares, the president of Kelly Education, which partners with school districts across the country to provide staffing, said she is worried that substitute teachers may fall through the cracks in states’ vaccination programs. While she hasn’t yet seen a state exclude substitute teachers from its prioritization plan, she said it may be up to district administrators to account for substitutes in the number of vaccines they request.
Jennifer Daniels, the associate director for public policy for Catholic education at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said she’s not aware of any states that have differentiated private and public school teachers in their vaccine plans. But there have been some places where there was some initial confusion about private school teachers’ eligibility.
For example, in Montgomery County, Md., health officials began vaccinating public school teachers—and not their counterparts in private schools. While the Montgomery County school system has been remote since March, many private schools in the area have offered at least some in-person classes this school year.
Bethesda Beat, a Maryland local news site, reported that private schools were initially not included because Johns Hopkins Medicine, which is partnering with the county to distribute vaccine doses, had to administer shots quickly and there was no central contact for reaching private school employees. But state health officials informed county health departments that private school educators cannot be excluded from the vaccine distribution, and Bethesda Beat reported that in the first week of February, private school teachers got half of the available doses that are earmarked for educators.
Meanwhile, some official state policies draw a distinction between early-childhood educators and K-12 teachers. Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio, Utah, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C., have prioritized vaccinating K-12 teachers and staff over child-care providers, according to the advocacy group Child Care Aware of America. Yet many child-care centers have been open for much of the pandemic, and some never closed.
In Ohio, child-care providers feel “slighted,” said Jessica Robins, the director of early-childhood services at the Mandel Jewish Community Center near Cleveland. She has started a petition asking the state to move the staff of early-childhood centers and programs to the same priority level as K-12 teachers. So far, more than 21,000 people have added their names.
Robins’ center has been open for in-person classes since July. There have been a few closures during the school year due to COVID-19 cases among the staff, the students, and the parents.
The staff members are “keeping their anxieties in check, but it does absolutely impact their psyche and their comfort level and how they’re approaching work each day,” Robins said. “They’re in a really vulnerable situation. They work really closely with young children who don’t social distance or don’t wear masks either appropriately or at all if they’re young.”
Across the country, child-care workers are typically paid less and have fewer benefits than K-12 teachers. In 2017, the median pay for a child-care worker was $10.72 an hour. Unlike K-12 teachers, who are mostly white women, child-care providers are disproportionately Black and Latina women. Communities of color have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.
“While there is a compelling case for this group and many groups to receive the vaccine as soon as possible, there is not enough vaccine supply right now to vaccinate all groups at this time,” said Dan Tierney, the press secretary for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, in an email. “Vaccine eligibility to date has reflected Gov. DeWine’s goals of saving as many lives as possible and returning K-12 students to in-person instruction.”
Robins said she understands the need to get K-12 students back into classrooms. But she can’t help but feel like child-care workers are being penalized for having stayed open throughout most of the pandemic.
The prioritization plan has “turned us from being these champions for being open to sort of chumps,” she said.
Vaccines tied to school reopenings
In many places, teachers’ unions have said their members won’t feel comfortable returning to school buildings until they are fully vaccinated. In Chicago, teachers are on the brink of a possible strike as the district tries to bring elementary students back to classrooms, with the union saying teachers need to be vaccinated first.
But some unions—including in California and Fairfax, Va.—say that even after school staff are vaccinated, it still won’t be safe to return to in-person instruction until COVID-19 transmission in the community decreases.
Ray Domanico, the director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said teachers shouldn’t be prioritized for the vaccine unless it’s a “solid guarantee” that they will return to the classroom. In December, Domanico wrote a Washington Post opinion essay arguing against putting teachers at the front of the vaccine line, and for instead prioritizing based on age and health. Other groups of workers are at higher risk for COVID-19, he wrote.
“A lot of folks who are essential workers … have been going to work since the beginning of this,” he said in an interview. “To the extent that teachers have not, it makes me question why they should go to the top of the list.”
Even so, teachers in many places have been working in person through much of this school year and still can’t access the vaccine. Florida and Texas are among the states that require in-person instruction be available to students, yet teachers in both those states aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine.
Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, said teachers in the Sunshine State were among the first in the country to return to classrooms but are still anxiously awaiting inoculation. Instead, the state is prioritizing people 65 and older.
“It’s been the educators who’ve been on the front line of a lot of this work, so [for the state] to continue to say, ‘You need to risk your life, you need to risk your health and those of your families, but we’re not going do anything to assist you in return,’ … I think is a prime example of how this governor has a lack of respect for teachers,” Spar said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has said that the COVID-19 vaccine by Johnson & Johnson, which is awaiting emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration, could be designated for school staff when it’s available, according to ABC Action News in Tampa Bay. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires just one shot, and a global study found that it’s 66 percent effective at protecting against moderate to severe COVID-19 infection—and 85 percent effective at preventing the most serious COVID-19 symptoms. Meanwhile, the already-approved Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which both require two shots, are about 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infections.
Across the country, many educators say they feel they have been pushed back into the classroom before they are ready, so to not be prioritized for the vaccine is a tough pill to swallow.
“To not be considered an essential worker, … that’s hard,” said Brehm, the Vermont teacher. “We all give of ourselves immensely and create relationships and take care of people, and it’s just a time where we would like to know that we are taken care of, too.”