Nearly a year after the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to shut down, no one is more eager for a full reopening than teachers, who understand the myriad advantages of in-person instruction and the hurdles of going remote. If we prioritize school reopening, however, we must prioritize vaccination of teachers.
In its latest guidelines on school reopening, the clearest yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages states to prioritize teachers, maintaining, “Teachers and school staff hold jobs critical to the continued functioning of society and are a potential occupational risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2.” The agency’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that teachers and school staff be prioritized for vaccine allocation in phase 1b of the rollout, underscoring that vaccinating teachers is a “layer of COVID mitigation and protection for both staff and students.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has likewise called for getting teachers vaccinated as quickly as possible, saying that prioritizing teachers is optimal to school reopening.
Not only will vaccinating teachers allow schools to reopen but also to stay open —and that is critical. Anyone who has had to pivot from in-person to remote instruction and hybrid models understands how challenging these shifts can be, and how disruptive to students, teachers, and families alike. The primary reason Connecticut schools have had to close repeatedly throughout the pandemic is because of staffing shortages resulting from the need to quarantine. Under the CDC’s new guidance, however, individuals who are fully vaccinated against COVID would not need to quarantine. Vaccinating teachers will allow schools to reopen safely and keep their doors open.
Fully vaccinating teachers, and therefore fully reopening schools, will also allow for a steadier reopening of Connecticut’s economy, as greater numbers of parents can return to work knowing that school staffing shortages and shutdowns are unlikely. The ripple effects of school closures due to COVID spikes and quarantines cannot be overstated; the same can be said for the positive impact of vaccinating teachers.
Updated CDC guidelines, of course, also continue to emphasize that the safe operation of in-person instruction is predicated on schools’ ability to maintain strict, universally required mitigation measures —something that many schools have been unable to do. The nation’s public health agency is clear that in communities with substantial COVID transmission, maintaining six feet of distance in K-12 schools is imperative— in the CDC’s own language, “nonnegotiable.” These and other critical measures were outlined in CEA’s Safe Learning Plan, a detailed report and set of recommendations issued at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. They remain as important as ever.
While more than half the states in the country have either vaccinated or prioritized their educators, Connecticut has not. Connecticut teachers, who have stepped up for their students while their own safety and that of their families remains at risk, have no idea when they might expect to receive the vaccine, even as schools remain open —often with outdated HVAC systems and no possibility of physical distancing— and more transmissible and dangerous coronavirus variants spread. Connecticut reported its first identified case of the deadliest known coronavirus strain, the South African variant, just last week.
To underscore the importance of expediting teacher vaccinations and the far-reaching effects such a move will have for Connecticut’s students, families, educators, and entire communities, CEA has launched a statewide public awareness campaign: Vaccinate Educators Now. Featuring five Connecticut Teachers of the Year, from Bridgeport to Windsor, the campaign emphasizes the latest science-based guidance on school safety and urges the state to move forward with teacher vaccinations.
The most critical steps in opening schools safely and keeping them from having to shut down are to implement the CDC’s guidelines and vaccinate teachers. The time is now.
Jeff Leake is the President of the Connecticut Education Association.