Lori Torres was nervous about returning to teaching in-person this week in Chicago. Torres, 47, teaches Spanish to all grades at her preK-8 school and has a medical condition that puts her at increased risk, but her request to continue to teach from home hadn’t been approved.
Her short-term concern was addressed when the Chicago Teachers Union voted to stay remote while union and city leaders haggled over the safety of working conditions in buildings.
But Torres’ long-term concern — getting a vaccine before she returns to Monroe Elementary School — is unresolved.
CPS’ vaccination schedule for teachers won’t start until mid-February — and the district wants staff and students back before that. Some teachers in Chicago’s suburbs, meanwhile, have already received vaccinations.
“In a district where the majority of the population we serve has been impacted the greatest by this virus, we’re left to our own devices to figure this out,” Torres said.
Getting a vaccine “is almost like trying to win that billion dollar lottery.”
Amid fraught negotiations nationwide about reopening more schools for in-person learning, especially in large districts, vaccines for teachers is now viewed as a lynchpin for getting kids back to class.
But a chaotic vaccine rollout combined with a patchwork of conflicting local guidance has raised serious ethical questions about where and how teachers fall in line. And that’s resulted in wildly uneven access, meaning that kids in some communities may have a chance to return to schools sooner than others because their teachers had more access to inoculations.
In Kentucky, the state Department of Health collected names in December of public and private school staff who wanted a vaccine — 82,158 people in all — and worked with the governor’s office and state education department to roll out doses to districts. Thousands have already received their first doses.
In Oregon, almost all teachers in the state’s second-largest district were vaccinated by Jan. 22. By that same date, almost none of the teachers in Portland, the state’s largest district, had received the shot.
In Georgia, one small rural district worked with a local medical center to make vaccines available to all school employees, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. About 40% of the Elbert County School District’s 500 employees took the option. But now the state has cut off the medical center’s vaccine supply for violating state rules by prioritizing teachers over waiting, willing seniors.
“It’s a mess,” said Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and researcher at Brown University in Rhode Island. “We’ll be lucky if we get teachers getting vaccinated by March or April in most states.”
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The fractured system for vaccinating school staff is an extension of the regular vaccine rollout that’s already been heavily criticized.
“This is insanity,” said Barry Bloom, a doctor and professor at Harvard University with a specialty in infectious diseases and global health. There should be a central registry where anyone over the age of 75 can sign up for a vaccination, he said in a call Thursday with reporters.
“The current distribution process makes very little sense in a time of a national emergency,” Bloom added.
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Plus there’s lots of demand and very little supply right now, added Alison Buttenheim, a professor of nursing and health policy at University of Pennsylvania.
The federal government releases allocations of vaccine doses to 64 jurisdictions in the country, most of which are states, she explained. Those jurisdictions are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on who to prioritize, she added, but localities can add their own variations.
That’s why teachers in places are in line behind health care workers, senior citizens, and those in nursing homes. In some cases, teachers may qualify for the first priority group based on their age or medical conditions.
“It looks scattered and disorganized, but it’s really 64 different entities doing things slightly differently,” Buttenheim said.
Bloom, from Harvard, said deciding whether to push teachers to the front of the line boils down to ethics and what leaders think is most important for society.
“If the focus is on saving lives, as you’ve seen in most states, school teachers don’t score at the top,” Bloom said. “If you focus on creating conditions for society to function, I would put teachers at the very top.”
“That’s a trade off that every state is having to make,” he added.
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Oregon moved teachers ahead of seniors
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown announced the state would move teachers to the front of the line for vaccines to get children back to classrooms by mid-February.
But some teachers disagreed with the move.
“Educators are very uncomfortable with the decision that was made to put educators in front of other groups,” said Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers.
Mindy Merritt, the president of the Salem-Keizer teachers’ union — the second-largest district in the state, which serves about 42,000 students — had her own misgivings: She would have preferred to give her vaccine to her elderly mother.
But that wasn’t an option. So when it was Merritt’s turn on Jan. 21, she got her shot.
Merritt said almost all of Salem-Keizer’s teachers had received the first vaccine dose, putting them in position to likely reopen for more students by mid-February.
Schools have opened without vaccinated staff
Many smaller or wealthier districts have successfully opened for in-person learning this year, before vaccines were developed. But most large districts serving poorer populations have remained all or mostly remote into the second semester.
The challenges are myriad in those places. Large districts often serve mostly Black and Brown families who have been hit hardest by the virus and are also more likely to keep their children at home than white families. Buildings are older and require ventilation upgrades in many cases. Classrooms are smaller, making physical distancing more difficult depending on how many students show up.
The latest CDC data shows schools that opened in person and embraced universal masking, small student groups and some physical distance had limited spread of COVID-19.
Teachers’ union pushback to reopening largely centers around a lack of trust that all districts, especially large ones, can dutifully follow such mitigation strategies.
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That’s what’s happening in Chicago. Some of the city’s schools had had re-opened for the youngest students and those with special needs to earlier this month. But as the Feb. 1 date approached for opening more K-8 classrooms to traditional students, a narrow majority of union members voted to return to all-remote work until an agreement on safety measures could be reached.
The union wants the city to use CDC metrics on virus transmission as a way to determine if in-person learning is safe, and it wants teachers to be vaccinated before returning. City leaders point to plans such as the teacher vaccination schedule, the expansion of COVID-19 testing and upgraded ventilation as sufficient. Plus, they say, many students are suffering in an all-remote learning environment.
“Vaccinations would be one of the most effective ways to make me feel safe,” said Quentin Washington, a music teacher in Chicago who refused to work in-person when the district called back the initial round of educators earlier this month.
He’s been locked out of the district’s online system since then, he said.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, weighed in on Thursday.
Everyone wants to “get teachers vaccinated as fast as we possibly can,” he said. But schools also need more money for mitigation tactics like masks and also intermittent testing, he added.
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Rapid antigen tests, while not as sensitive as PCR tests for COVID-19, are good enough and cheap for school purposes, Fauci said during the online talk with the heads of the two largest national teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
“We’re not going to get back to normal until we get the children back in school,” Fauci said.
Grace Hauck contributed to this story from Chicago.