As state officials work to increase the accessibility of coronavirus vaccines, they should pay particular attention to educators. Desires and plans to further open schools for in-person learning place teachers near the front lines in the battle against the disease.
“They continue to work tirelessly to serve students during this extraordinarily difficult time,” Evergreen Superintendent Mike Merlino and Vancouver Superintendent Steve Webb wrote last week in a joint letter to state officials. “To reopen the economy and address pre-K through 12th grade learning loss, the State of Washington must reopen its public schools. In doing so, the state’s top priority must be keeping our staff, students, families and communities safe and healthy.”
Other local districts have since joined the chorus calling for educators to be a high priority for vaccinations.
Of course, good arguments can be made for the importance of many groups to be vaccinated. First responders and health care workers obviously should be near the front of the line; they are more likely to come into direct contact with people who have been infected.
Older residents, especially those in group homes, also must be a priority. Data show they are more susceptible for catching the disease and more likely to suffer severe symptoms.
But in trying to stem the spread of the virus, educators also play an important role. They come into contact with a large number of people, and that number will increase as schools work to expand in-person learning.
While research shows that schoolchildren are less susceptible to COVID-19, the concern is that teachers could contract the disease from an asymptomatic student and then spread it to their families. Teachers have a tough enough job, particularly with the difficulties presented by the pandemic, without putting their own health at risk.
As Webb said, “In addition to the Centers for Disease Control COVID mitigation strategies, vaccinating all pre-K-12 employees at the same time will add another layer of protection for our staff, students and families.”
Frustration has mounted over the rollout of vaccinations in Washington — where more than 200,000 doses have been administered — and other states.
“While we are making progress every single day … I recognize it has not been enough,” state Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah said last week, adding that he had directed changes at the department. “One of those changes is an accelerated timeline to move to our next grouping — Phase 1B — which we expect to do in the next coming days.”
Phase 1B includes people 70 years and older, plus people 50 and older in multigenerational households.
Meanwhile, the federal government surprised state officials with a new directive mandating that governors open vaccine access to anyone 65 and older and anyone with a health complication. “The line, you’re making it longer, but you’re not necessarily helping get people vaccine because there’s not enough supply,” Shah said.
The goal must be to inoculate those most at risk from severe complications, as well as those most likely to contract and spread the disease because of numerous contacts — such as teachers.
Meanwhile, recommendations to wear a mask in public, practice social distancing and frequently wash hands remain in place. The arrival of vaccines is not a panacea that will make coronavirus magically disappear; it is merely a step on a long road to slowing the spread of infections.