Almost half of U.S. states have begun allowing teachers to be vaccinated as officials decide which groups should be given priority for early protection against the coronavirus, a New York Times survey shows. By this week, 24 states and Washington, D.C., were providing shots to teachers of kindergarten through high school students.
How quickly states give shots to teachers from a growing-but-still-limited vaccine supply has become a central point in the debate about how best to reopen school systems, at a time when more contagious virus variants are emerging and spreading.
In some states where many teachers are already teaching in-person classes, teachers are not yet eligible for vaccines. And for many places where classes are mainly remote, vaccinating teachers has been a first step to returning children to classrooms, though it is not the only factor.
“This discussion is not about if we return, but how we return,” Stacy Davis Gates, a leader of the Chicago Teachers Union said recently amid a standoff in that city over whether students in elementary and middle schools — and their teachers — should return to classrooms immediately. Ms. Davis Gates said, “How we return is with the maximum amount of safety that we can obtain in an agreement.”
On Wednesday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that although teachers should be prioritized for vaccination as essential workers, “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.” Her statement was in line with recent research suggesting that measures, such as masking and social distancing, can effectively mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in schools, especially where community virus levels are controlled.
Last week, the C.D.C. weighed in with a striking message: Children should return to classrooms because it’s safe for them to do so.
The agency said the “preponderance of available evidence” indicated that in-person instruction could be carried out safely as long as mask-wearing and social distancing were maintained. Its researchers found “little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission” when proper safety precautions were followed.
There was an important caveat: Local officials also must be willing to impose limits on other settings — like indoor dining, bars or poorly ventilated gyms — to keep infection rates low in the community at large.
The debate remains far from settled, and teachers’ unions across the country have pressed for teachers to be given high priority for receiving a vaccine.
Oregon began vaccinating K-12 teachers last month, giving them an earlier place in line than some residents who are 75 years or older, who are only eligible for shots in certain counties. Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said the move was part of her plan to bring students back into the classroom during this school year.
“For every teacher who is back in the classroom, they help 20, 30, 35 students get their lives back on track,” Ms. Brown said. “They help ensure 20, 30, 35 kids have access to mental health support. They make sure 20, 30, 35 kids get breakfast and lunch several days a week. And they allow families to know their children are in good hands when they go to work.”
As part of Gov. Mike DeWine’s goal to bring students back to in-person learning either full- or part-time by March 1, Ohio began vaccinating teachers in certain counties this week. Union officials have praised that decision, but say it is not the sole answer to getting students back to school safely. Children will not yet have shots, they note, nor will all adults in schools.
“Even when educators are able to be vaccinated, it will remain critically important to continue following all C.D.C. guidance to keep our schools safe and open for in-person instruction when possible,” Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, said in a news release.