Vaccinate Teachers Before Requiring Them to Return

By Elaine Maimon

Philadelphia and Chicago teachers are being pressured to return to face-to-face instruction. Before that can happen, teachers and staff should move to the front of the line for vaccinations. Teachers and school staff members are essential workers, many of them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because of age, pre-existing conditions, or both.  It’s a no-brainer—protect the teachers and their families—then, and only then, require a return to the classroom.

I write this from the perspective of decades in education as a university administrator and faculty member and as a thought leader and writer on educational issues. I also write from a personal perspective. My daughter has taught for 25 years in the Philadelphia pubic schools. My granddaughter, Rosie, an active and gregarious first-grader, has been sentenced to hours in front of the computer screen instead of interacting with teacher and classmates. She’s doing a great job of learning to read, but she’s lonely.

There’s no doubt about the benefits of opening the schools. I’d like Rosie to be back in the classroom tomorrow–but not before the teachers and support staff in her school are vaccinated. In the meantime, not nearly enough praise has been given to resourceful and creative teachers. Rosie’s teacher periodically drives door-to-door to check in on students and to provide individual help—masked and at a safe distance.  My daughter, a second-grade teacher, has discovered some advantages in Zoom instruction. As she studies the faces of her students, she can sometimes more readily see puzzled or sad expressions, which would be more difficult to pick up in a crowded classroom. Nonetheless, it’s important for students at all levels to interact with each other and with their teachers in safe physical settings.

On the subject of safety, even if teachers and staff are vaccinated, it will still be important for schools to implement COVID-ready protocols. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines protect against serious symptoms but do not entirely prevent catching or transmitting the disease. Before schools open, they must commit to mask-wearing, social distancing, and deep cleaning, all of which costs money. That’s why in addition to the necessary investment for vaccine distribution, funding for opening the schools is included in the economic stimulus bill presented by the Biden administration for Congressional consideration.

The cost is well worth it for educational, psychological, and economic reasons. Students will learn better face-to-face. Co-curricular activities will resume. The Drama Club, for example, would actually be able to put on a live play. Teachers will have in-person opportunities to interact socially and professionally with colleagues. Children will thrive psychologically when they are released from months of isolation. Order will return to households now conducting competing Zoom classes and parents’ work-related meetings. Child-care will no longer be an impediment for Mom and Dad returning to work.

So let’s get the teachers and school staff members vaccinated. That may be easier said than done, however. Vaccines have been approved and available since mid-December. But in Chicago and Philadelphia vaccine distribution has been a mess. It’s becoming evident that the Trump administration may have intentionally or incompetently short-changed these two big blue cities. Not only has the vaccine been inadequate but information about its distribution has been unreliable. President Biden has promised to set things right, but these cities are still suffering from the lack of a nationally centralized plan.

In Philadelphia, there’s the additional and inexcusable poor judgment and incompetence of city leaders. It’s hard to believe that the city turned over major vaccine distribution to “Philly Fighting COVID,” led by Andrei Doroshin, a Drexel University graduate student with no medical experience. Doroshin admitted today (1/28/21) on NBC’s “Today Show,” that he took doses and administered them to friends. With a mistake like this in the misdirection of vaccine, it makes no sense at all for Philadelphia’s Superintendent of Schools to require unvaccinated teachers to return to the classroom in February.

It’s time to be sensible. That’s little enough to ask of leaders. Get a system in place for the fair, effective distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, with teachers and school staff members given priority. When that happens, we can move forward with health and educational goals.


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