Al Seib | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously urged states to prioritize the vaccination of teachers, but some public health specialists criticized the agency for not making vaccination a prerequisite for reopening K-12 schools.
“Let me be clear, we can reopen schools if the right steps are taken even before employees are vaccinated,” Biden said Tuesday at the White House. “But time and again, we’ve heard from educators and parents that have anxieties about it.”
To help accelerate the safe reopening of schools, Biden said “let’s treat in-person learning like the essential service that it is and that means getting essential workers, who provide that service, educators, school staff, child-care workers, get them vaccinated.”
“My challenge to all states, territories, the District of Columbia is this: We want every educator, school staff member, child-care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March,” he added.
Biden said he will use the federal pharmacy partnership, which was established with retail pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to expand access to Covid-19 vaccines, to make the shots available to pre-K-12 teachers and school staff. That would provide those workers an opportunity to receive the vaccine even in states where they do not meet the local eligibility requirements.
His statement is the strongest call yet and the most ambitious timeline presented by the federal government for states to prioritize educators and school staff, though it stops short of a mandate to do so. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, hailed the president’s remarks as a concrete step toward reopening schools for in-person learning.
“What a tremendous relief to have a president who is meeting this moment of crisis,” Weingarten said in a statement. “Vaccinations are a key ingredient to reopening schools safely, and this is the administration taking the steps to ramp up vaccinations for educators, which is great news for everyone who wants in-school learning.”
Because doses of the Covid-19 vaccines remain in short supply, states are rationing them out to prioritized groups, mostly frontline essential workers, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. While the CDC sets recommendations on which groups should receive the vaccine first, states ultimately make their own decisions.
The CDC has recommended that teachers be vaccinated in the phase 1b group, which includes everyone 75 and older, as well as “frontline essential workers.” But some states have excluded teachers and school staff from their definition of frontline essential workers.
Even though the nation’s top health agency recommends states prioritize vaccinating teachers, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has said that teachers not being vaccinated should not be an obstacle to reopening schools. She has said if schools follow public health precautions established by the CDC, teachers and staff can safely return to in-person learning.
However, based on the parameters laid out by the CDC, about 90% of schools in the country are in counties with substantial levels of spread where the CDC says it’s not safe for schools to fully reopen for in-person learning.