Teaching Profession

Will Teachers Get Priority for COVID-19 Vaccines?

By Catherine Gewertz — November 23, 2020 3 min read
Matt Richardson teaches his students from Hesston Middle School in the basement of the Cross Winds Convention Center in Hesston, Kan., earlier this month.

Those on the front lines of K-12 teaching should get high priority for COVID-19 vaccines, according to a new survey of superintendents, principals, and teachers.

It’s a question that’s taking on increasing urgency as coronavirus rates surge to alarming levels nationwide. Three companies—Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca—have announced promising results of clinical trials on their vaccines. They now face an accelerated approval process.

In a survey fielded Nov. 18-19, after Pfizer and Moderna’s announcements, but before AstraZeneca’s, the EdWeek Research Center asked district leaders, principals, and teachers which preK-12 employees should be considered essential workers and receive early access to COVID-19 vaccines. More than 7 in 10 pointed to front-line workers in schools, with teachers, school nurses, and bus drivers topping the list.

Data on PreK-12 employees who should be considered essential workers.

(The nationally representative survey drew responses from 913 preK-12 educators, including 298 district leaders,190 principals, and 425 teachers.)

Teachers and other school-based personnel have been deemed essential workers by many states and school districts, to enable—or in some cases require—them to work even as other businesses shut down due to COVID-19. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency lists K-12 personnel as “essential critical infrastructure workers.”

But it’s not yet clear what priority teachers and other K-12 personnel will be assigned for the new vaccines. Health experts have said that widespread vaccination is key to fully reopening schools for in-person instruction. But they’ve also said it isn’t sufficient. Large-scale vaccination of children is also necessary, they said, and clinical trials on children younger than 12 are only just beginning.

A federal plan released in September suggests that teachers and other K-12 staff could be among the first to get the new vaccines. The first wave is likely to include the elderly, people with health vulnerabilities, and health care providers who work with COVID-19 patients. The second wave is likely to include people who run a higher risk of getting the virus, such as those who work at schools, childcare centers, and colleges.

Leaders in K-12 are pushing for teachers to get high priority for the new vaccines. In September, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten urged federal review panels to include teachers and school staff in the highest-priority group for vaccines. The union’s executive council passed a resolution in October restating the importance of the vaccine for school workers.

Once the Food and Drug Administration approves one or more vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will decide which groups to prioritize for first use. That committee met today, to discuss the framework it will use to evaluate priority for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The National School Transportation Association submitted public comment for today’s advisory committee meeting, arguing that school bus drivers deserve high priority for COVID-19 vaccinations.

It was the only K-12 organization that filed public comments for the November meeting. But it’s still early in the prioritization process, said Walter Orenstein, a professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and a former director of the CDC’s immunization program.

Once the FDA approves vaccines and the CDC advisory panel is considering real options, he said, that’s when input from the public—presumably including K-12 organizations—could start stacking up in the committee’s public comment inbox.

The CDC committee won’t be the universal channel for K-12 input, though. The Council of Chief State School Officers, for instance, says it doesn’t plan to submit comment to the panel. Instead, it aims to channel state superintendents’ voices by partnering them with governors.

“CCSSO has been working to ensure state chiefs are at the table with governors as states design their vaccine distribution plans,” spokeswoman Carolyn Phenicie said in an email.

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