President Joe Biden’s call on Tuesday to have every school employee receive at least one vaccine shot by the end of this month has elevated his push to reopen schools even before the nation is fully inoculated. At the White House’s direction, vaccinations will be available at local pharmacies through a federal program. But with the states setting priorities for eligibility otherwise, there remains a limit on actually getting shots in arms.
Amplify Mr. Biden’s push, Jill Biden, & the newly confirmed education secretary, Miguel Cardona, traveled on Wednesday to the secretary’s home state, Connecticut, to tour an elementary school and a middle school in Meriden, where he grew up. Mr. Cardona left his job as the state’s education commissioner to join Mr. Joe Biden’s cabinet. They will then travel to Waterford, Pa., to meet with parents.
Parents across the country are frustrated with the pace of reopening, and in some cases, are starting to rebel. Nationally, fewer than half of students are attending public schools that offer traditional in-person instruction full time. & many teachers have rejected plans to return to the classroom without being vaccinated.
Even so, most schools are already operating at least partially in person, and evidence suggests that they are doing so relatively safely. Research shows in-school virus spread can be mitigated with simple safety measures like masking, distancing, hand-washing and open windows.
“Let’s treat in-person learning like an essential service that it is,” Mr. Joe Biden said on Tuesday, even as he noted that not every school employee would be able to get a vaccine next week. “& that means getting essential workers who provide that service — educators, school staff, child care workers — get them vaccinated immediately.”
Educators will be able to sign up to receive a vaccine through a local drug store as part of a federal program in which shots are delivered directly to pharmacies, Joe Biden said.
At least thirty four states and the District of Columbia are already vaccinating school workers to some extent, according to a NY Times database. Others were quick to fall in line after Mr. Biden announced his plan. On Tuesday, Washington State added educators & licensed child care workers to its top tier for priority, accelerating its plan by a few weeks.
In guidelines issued last month, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention urged that elementary and secondary schools be reopened as soon as possible, & offered a step-by-step plan to get students back in classrooms. While the agency recommended giving teachers priority, it said that vaccination should “nevertheless not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”
Many schools are already fully open in areas with substantial or high community transmission, where the agency suggests schools be open only in hybrid mode or in distance-learning mode. The agency says those schools can remain open if mitigation strategies are consistently implemented, students & staff are masked, & monitoring of cases in school suggests limited transmission.
The agency’s guidelines say that 6 feet of distancing between individuals is required at substantial and high levels of community transmission. Many school buildings cannot accommodate that, which may lead some districts to stick with a hybrid instruction model when they might otherwise have gone to full in-person instruction.
Many local teachers’ unions remain adamantly opposed to restarting in-person learning now, saying that school districts do not have the resources or the inclination to follow C.D.C. guidance on coronavirus safety. Without vaccinations, the unions say, adults in schools would remain vulnerable to serious illness or death from Covid-19 because children, while much less prone to illness, can nevertheless readily carry the virus. Studies suggest that children under 10 transmit the virus about half as efficiently as adults do, but older children may be much like adults.
The unions have a ready ear in the White House. President Joe Biden, a community college professor, is a member of the National Education Association, & the president has a long history with the unions. Ms. Biden & Mr. Cardona were scheduled to meet with Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in Connecticut, & with Becky Pringle, the N.E.A. president, in Pennsylvania.
Epidemiological models have shown that vaccinating teachers could greatly reduce infections in schools. “It should be an absolute priority,” said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Still, requiring that teachers be vaccinated could greatly slow the pace of school reopenings, he & other experts acknowledged.
Teachers’ unions want not just vaccination, but also that districts improve ventilation and ensure 6 feet of distancing — 2 measures that have been shown to reduce the spread of the virus. (The C.D.C. guidelines emphasize 6 feet of distance only when prevalence of the virus is high, & nodded only briefly to the need for ventilation.) The unions have also insisted that schools not open until the infection rates in their communities are very low.