An alliance of labor organizations and trade groups representing teachers, principals and support staff is pressuring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prioritize access to a coronavirus vaccine for the country’s 5 million public school employees as the first approved immunizations hit the market in the U.S.
With the majority of the country’s schools closed for in-person learning or offering limited in-person instruction through a hybrid model – and as the number of districts forced to go all virtual climbs amid an uncontrollable surge in coronavirus infections – the heads of the powerful education groups are offering a compelling argument: If you want to open schools, vaccinate us first.
“I’m a big believer that educators should have priority after health care workers,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million member American Federation of Teachers. “But coming right after that, those in schools that are reopening in person or have reopened in person, should be a very close second priority.”
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“The way in which we see it,” she says, “is that the vaccination prioritization should be aligned with those who are in school.”
Nearly a third of the educator workforce is over the age of 55, placing them at higher risk for a more serious infection if they were to contract the coronavirus. Another quarter of the workforce have medical issues, like heart disease or diabetes, which also puts them in a high-risk category. With children more likely to be silent spreaders – those who may not know they are infected because they are asymptomatic – combined with the fact that some schools are reopening without the proper personal protective and sanitizing equipment and in buildings with poor ventilation, the education groups argue it’s imperative that school staff are at the top of the vaccination list.
“Plans for reopening, by and large, do not contain all the necessary safeguards,” Weingarten says. “It is important to take all steps to protect educators and school staff.”
The sentiments are echoed in letters and public comments to CDC officials and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, which is consulting with the federal government on how to prioritize certain populations in the U.S. for the coming vaccines.
The lobbying effort began months ago but crystallized last week when the AFT, along with the National Education Association, the 3.2 million member teachers union, the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, which represents the country’s 13,000’school districts, as well as organizations representing principals, school counselors and parents, implored the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices in a joint letter to bump them to the top of the list, just after health care workers.
“As you know, public schools have been struggling to bring students back into the classroom,” they wrote, specifically asking the advisory committee to grant teachers, specialist instructors, aides, food service and custodial workers and principals priority to the forthcoming vaccines.
“These shutdowns profoundly affect our families as well as our local economies,” the letter continued. “Most parents either cannot work, are forced to work and leave children unattended, or are trying to juggle working from home with childcare. We know that student learning has declined, more children are now living in poverty, and too many students are dealing with mental health issues, food and housing insecurity, abuse or neglect, or sickness or death of loved ones. Our students need to come back to school safely, educators want to welcome them back, and no one should have to risk their health to make this a reality.”
They also pitched the idea of vaccinated educators and school staff becoming “trusted messengers” who could help ease anxieties and fears surrounding a new vaccine that’s set to come to market at warp speed for emergency use. And if enough school personnel are vaccinated early on, the education groups argued, then schools themselves could become vaccination centers for the general public and help drive up vaccination rates.
“Trust is really important,” Weingarten says. “Because of the failure of national leadership, because of the failure of a consistent message on the public health implications of COVID, the way to trust is for people to see an example or an experience where others are not getting sick. There is no other way to do that.”
Earlier this week, the CDC’s immunization advisory committee voted 13-1 to recommend health care workers and those in long-term care facilities have access to the first 40 million doses expected to be available by the end of this month from U.S. drug companies Pfizer and Moderna, which have filed for emergency use authorization with the Food and Drug Administration.
The committee is set to debate and vote on priority for phase 1B later this month or next, during which they’ll consider an array of essential workers, including teachers.
Locking in vaccination priority for teachers and staff would be a boon to the education groups, which have been critical of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Trump administration – including officials at the CDC – and Congress for lack of guidance about how to operate schools in a pandemic, especially given how much pressure the White House has put on them to reopen for in-person learning, and delayed federal stimulus support to keep schools afloat.
The void has sown confusion and competing narratives about what is and isn’t safe, and has resulted in states establishing a web of complicating, overlapping and sometimes non-existent reporting requirements at the state, county and school district level regarding COVID-19 cases in schools.
In a letter sent Thursday to José Romero, chairman of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, Weingarten teased additional recommendations that others in the education sector will likely echo in the coming days regarding coordinating the distribution of the vaccine to school staff and how to decide which school districts have access first, including a specific ask that “at-risk students” and their families be placed in phase 1B priority alongside teachers and school staff.
“Phase 1B recommendations should include educators, school staff and at-risk students,” Weingarten says. “The vaccine must be readily available to them on site to allow for the safe, orderly and timely reopening of schools.”
“We believe,” she continued, “that instead of a broad recommendation for vaccine for bands of staff or for all educators and school staff, ACIP should recommend that vaccine distribution and administration be prioritized by the status of the school, i.e., by where schools are actually opened or anticipate opening (elementary and special needs, etc.). Also, we encourage ACIP to consider adding not only students in the priority candidate list, but also their families during Phase 1b.”
The CDC’s ongoing decision-making process for recommending vaccination priority comes as an increasing number of school and city officials across the country are making difficult and contentious decisions to discontinue in-person learning or delay planned reopenings as the number of new coronavirus infections in the U.S. spikes.
As the country’s COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise, children are newly contracting the virus at alarming rates. As it stands, more than 1 million children in the U.S. have been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. And in the one-week period ending Nov. 12, officials recorded nearly 112,000 new cases in children – substantially larger than any previous week in the pandemic, the groups said.
Yet schools aren’t to blame, mounting evidence shows.
While COVID-19 infections can and do occur inside schools, schools are not the main drivers of increased infection rates. The data isn’t perfect or as robust as public health officials would like, but that narrative is taking hold with more certainty. Yet schools are often bearing the brunt of the community spikes, as city officials have been quick to shutter schools but allow bars, restaurants and gyms to remain open.
The national education organizations hope the CDC recommending educators and school staff for vaccination priority could change that and remove one of the biggest barriers to reestablishing a functioning public education system that largely collapsed for more than 50 million children in March.
“It is an imperative to recognize how fundamentally central schools and educators are in mitigating and controlling the virus,” Weingarten says. “The only way to create trust is to do it by showing an example to people.”