The cure for closed schools? Vaccinate teachers.

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February 8, 2021

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The cure for closed schools? Vaccinate teachers.

By Keith Poston

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Schools should be open to students. That’s it, plain and simple.

There is no replacement for high-quality, in-person instruction, despite a tremendous effort by teachers to keep learning going while students can’t be on campus.

So yes, schools should be open to students, plain and simple. But we should also have had fewer cases of COVID-19, and especially fewer deaths. The fact that we don’t is thanks to a failed national response and those who refused to believe this virus was more contagious and more deadly than the influenza virus and would not follow protocols like masking and distancing. That’s also plan and simple.

Almost a year into the pandemic, following our deadliest month so far but thankfully with vaccines rolling out, we’re now asking our school employees to put themselves in harm’s way without a plan to vaccinate them. We insist educators are essential workers while we prioritize other essential workers ahead of them. Why isn’t the safety of school employees the same as the safety of nursing home employees? Why should a school bus driver risk contracting COVID-19 when the assisted living van driver can be vaccinated? The answer: They should both be vaccinated now.

Our society is failing its mission to protect individuals we have deemed essential because we aren’t vaccinating educators.

The march to return students to in-person instruction is the right thing to do but insisting teachers can be in close quarters among students with minimal distancing is dangerous without vaccinating them. Governor Cooper and Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen should be applauded for their leadership to date, and they were correct this week when they said by following proper protocols the risk of in-person learning can be minimized, but the best and safest path is vaccination.

Right now teachers are in Group 3, the next group of vaccine eligibility, behind healthcare workers and adults over 65. But there has been no timeline shared for when Group 3 might start receiving vaccines. We have 10 percent of the population of the state and yet we’ve not held a single mass vaccination event in Wake County. Why?

Even if vaccination started today, it would still take 4 weeks minimum before all school staff could receive two doses under the most aggressive vaccination schedule possible. That’s not to say students couldn’t return before all staff is vaccinated, but at least get the process started now and let teachers know they are a priority and we have a plan.

Of course the root of the problem is vaccine supply.  But there are fair questions about priorities. There are only about 100,000 teachers in NC public schools – 10,000 here in Wake County – out of a state population of 10 million. Here in Wake County there are 180,000 people over 65 and a vaccine wait list of 80,000. We can find a way to prioritize teachers higher without significantly disrupting the plan. Other states have done so. Even if they remain in Group 3, they could be prioritized within the group beginning with teachers who are teaching in person.

Instead, we point to the results of one study from the ABC Collaborative out of Duke University as justification for bringing students back to school. The study showed that children are less likely to contract and spread the virus, and that schools are not likely to become so-called “super-spreader” sites. That’s reassuring, but that’s not enough.

Nothing can replace in-person instruction, and teachers desperately want to be among their students again. There’s no argument to the contrary. However, many school employees are worried for themselves, their students, their families, and the many other people they will affect in the community if they get sick.

Providing a vaccine option will restore confidence among school staff to do their jobs while protecting themselves and their community. Our leaders should move school staff up in the group eligibility immediately. That’s it, plain and simple.

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Read WakeEd President Keith Poston’s opinion article The cure for closed schools? Vaccinate teachers in the News & Observer.

For additional information on efforts nationally, read: Here are the states allowing teachers to get Covid-19 vaccines.

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