If you claim to value education, vaccinate teachers

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Laura Clawson/ Daily Kos (01/09/2021)
Evidence on how safe in-person schooling is and how it contributes to the spread of COVID-19 has been mixed—a lot more mixed than the headlines would tell you (read to the 11th paragraph in that piece, for instance), though not as dire as many of us feared over the summer. But the safety question may now be irrelevant, Elliot Haspel argues in The Atlantic. That’s because community spread of the virus is now so high that schools are having trouble staying fully staffed even if things within their walls are completely safe. And that points to one really important policy solution: Vaccinate teachers.

Haspel offers a barrage of examples of schools closing because there just aren’t enough teachers to supervise the students. One Colorado school system went remote, for instance, in large part because “It is especially difficult, and impossible on some days, to have enough licensed teachers in classrooms delivering quality instruction.”

So: The school safety and in-person education debate has been broken from the beginning, with the media and policymakers focused on demonizing teachers’ unions rather than on providing the funding, staffing, and air filtration that could make teachers—unionized or not—feel safe in the classroom and similarly set parents’ minds at ease. Even now, Chicago is pushing teachers into schools while Mayor Lori Lightfoot proudly tweets a picture of an air purifier that it was quickly pointed out was not rated for rooms as large as 90% of classrooms. As usual, inequality reigns, with wealthy school districts able to put into place the physical changes and policies needed to make classrooms as safe as possible, while teachers in the school districts that serve the kids who most need in-person teaching and access to things like school lunches are basically told to open the windows as wide as they can and cross their fingers. (Sorry, open doors would be a risk in case of a school shooting, so cross-ventilation is not a thing.)

Outside of the school buildings themselves, too many cities and states in the U.S. have refused to do a fraction of the things that would have driven community spread of coronavirus low enough for unequivocally safe in-person learning. They’ve left bars and movie theaters open to drive community spread, while kids lose out and/or frightened teachers are forced back into classrooms, often by school boards that themselves meet remotely.

Now we have a fix in reach: Vaccinate teachers. For sure, vaccinate frontline healthcare workers first. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations have teachers in the second priority group. But as with so many things, it’s being left up to the states, and we know that means some teachers will get royally screwed. In Florida, for instance, Gov. Ron DeSantis is prioritizing people aged 65 to 74 over teachers and school staff, even though the CDC guidelines have teachers ahead of people in that age group. Texas shares Florida’s priorities.

President-elect Joe Biden and his choice for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, want to prioritize in-person learning, but safely. This is an obvious thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. Vaccinate teachers.

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