President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to see most U.S. schools reopen in the first 100 days of his administration, which begins Jan. 20. And Congress recently approved a coronavirus relief package that includes $54 billion for K-12 schools, which could help districts cover expenses for measures aimed at stemming the spread of the virus in schools.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that states prioritize teachers as part of the second group of people eligible for vaccines — but each state will make its own decision, and there are big differences in approach among governors.
In Indiana, teachers in rural Knox County began receiving the vaccine Dec. 28 — not because they were prioritized over health-care workers and the elderly but because there were extra vials, Education Week reported. And in Evansville, Ind., a hospital had removed some vials out of the freezer where they must be kept and the vaccine had to be given that day, so teachers were put on the list, the Evansville Courier & Press reported.
“I was so excited because, to me, it was light at the end of a very long tunnel,” Susan Kemper, a fourth-grade Evansville teacher was quoted as saying. “We’re finally going to be able to get our lives back.”
In Colorado, school nurses in the Cherry Creek School District got the vaccine on Friday, with the same expected for teachers by mid-January, the Denver Post reported.
But in Florida, teachers are upset that their governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, has declined to prioritize them for the vaccine even though he ordered all schools to reopen last fall and threatened to withhold millions of dollars in state funding if they didn’t.
Kalyn Lee, a literacy coach at Miami Edison Senior High School, said teachers are upset that they have been forced back into classrooms without being vaccinated. She sees hundreds of students a day as she goes class to class providing literacy support, she said, and she feels exposed.
“I’m very, very, very afraid,” she said in a recent interview. “This is real. My boyfriend’s parents both had covid-19. Both were hospitalized. My first cousin, she had covid. Her boyfriend had covid. One of my best friends has covid right now. I have a lot of teacher friends who are currently quarantined. This is not one of those things, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it’s going to be fine.’”
The Orlando Sentinel quoted Wendy Doromal, president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, as saying: “Teachers want to be vaccinated, the vast majority of them, and we think they should be … [DeSantis] wants the school doors to be flung open, and he doesn’t want to provide the protection.”
In El Paso, there is a push to reopen schools, but teachers are not being prioritized for vaccinations. In a virtual town hall last week, Vince Sheffield, the interim superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, said he has asked Gov. Greg Abbot (R) to move teachers up on the priority list. But the governor has not.
In a recent interview, Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease official, has said it may not be until fall 2021 that schools can get “back to some form of normality.”
In a Dec. 18 interview with Timothy P. White, chancellor of the California State University System, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he will encourage the prioritization of teachers when he becomes Biden’s chief pandemic adviser in a few weeks.
“It is extremely important to get children back into school and kept in school, and the idea of vaccinating teachers is very high up in the priority as well as surveillance in the schools so you can get a good feel for the penetration of infection, which hopefully will continue to be low and not have to shut down every time you get a student that’s infected,” he said.
He said he hopes that by the time the 2021-2022 school year begins this coming fall, enough people will have been vaccinated. “I think we could be in good shape, and so I am cautiously optimistic that we can do that and get back to some form of normality,” he said.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Dec. 31 announced a plan for reopening elementary schools that would give vaccine priority to teachers and said he wants the youngest students and those with special needs back in classrooms in February. He said he would ask the legislature to spend $2 billion to help schools take the steps necessary in schools to get them to reopen.
But Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves nearly 600,000 students, said in a recent interview that vaccines alone will not ensure that schools can automatically reopen, if community transmission rates remain high. Even vaccinated people can spread the coronavirus, he said, and it will take a long time for everybody to get vaccinated.
“So we are a long way from having students and staff in school,” he said.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country, agreed in a recent interview that it would take time to vaccinate all teachers, and she said some teachers should get inoculated before others.
“Teacher vaccinations and ultimately student vaccinations, when it is found to be safe, should be aligning with the reopening of schools,” Weingarten said. “To the extent that you are focused on reopening elementary schools, teachers in those places should be offered the priority of places in January and February. There is that alignment. We understand that teachers and students should have the added need and protection more at the front end of the prioritizing after health-care workers and the elderly, who are so at risk.
“But you are not going to vaccinate 3 million people at the same time,” she said, referring to an estimate of the number of working full-time teachers. “So the priority should be the schools that are reopening and the educators that are going into those schools.”
Zachary Patterson, a student member of the Board of Education in the San Diego Unified School District, said neither the new stimulus money nor the vaccine are silver bullets to reopening schools
“A full reopening will be most strongly correlated to infection rates,” he said in an email. “Obviously, the biggest determination in reopening has been the safety of teachers, students and family. While vaccine distribution may be occurring, it is difficult to tell to what extent teachers will be prioritized.
“While I do have hope that students will fully return to school during this school year, I am not sure if this change will happen as quickly as all of us will hope,” he said.