Vaccine shortage complicates return to classrooms

School districts are pushing to reopen, but many states have tweaked vaccination plans to prioritize seniors over teachers

A vacant classroom in South Hadley, Mass.   (Christopher Evans/Getty Images file photo)
A vacant classroom in South Hadley, Mass. (Christopher Evans/Getty Images file photo)
Posted February 2, 2021 at 10:02am

Teachers are being squeezed out of line for COVID-19 vaccines amid a shortage of supply, making the delicate return to in-person learning more fraught all over the country.

School districts are pushing to reopen just as many states have tweaked vaccination plans to prioritize seniors over teachers. Some teachers will go longer than first anticipated without a shot, upping the stakes of a tense debate about how to rescue struggling students burned out on Zoom.

The tension could have an impact on President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, as the new administration seeks to address the concerns of teachers' unions while maintaining its campaign promise to resume in-person schooling. Meanwhile, new highly infectious virus variants have begun spreading in the United States just as more evidence emerges that opening schools can be done safely, quashing any easy answers to the question of how to ensure the well-being of students and teachers alike.

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The vaccine shortage was made more acute in states where governors followed the advice of former President Donald Trump’s top health officials to broaden eligibility to millions of seniors younger than 75 years old ahead of schedule. Many states made the move because they said Trump administration officials indicated that more doses were coming, but it was revealed days later that any reserves had already been depleted.

Under recommendations originally spelled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s independent vaccine advisers, school staff were due to receive the vaccine at the same time as other frontline essential workers and people 75 and older. The group said teachers faced high risks of exposure and performed a vital function. But as the vaccine rolled out more slowly than many hoped, federal officials called on states to scrap the group’s carefully deliberated guidelines.

Public health officials, county commissioners and medical providers have been left with agonizing decisions.

Teachers represented by unions have had an easier time lobbying for doses than non-unionized workers, like day care workers, school custodians or teachers in non-union states, according to Nancy Berlinger, a researcher with The Hastings Center, a bioethics group.

The uncertainty around when teachers will receive vaccines comes as recent evidence highlighted by CDC shows schools can open safely. Given the evidence, Republican lawmakers have excoriated teachers unions for taking a cautious approach and pushed back on Democrats for supporting them.

“Democrats are conveniently ignoring science the moment it goes against their extreme, anti-family agenda and the teachers’ unions that fund their campaigns,” Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, said in a statement last week.

Biden's goals

Biden, saying he hopes to reopen most K-8 schools during the first 100 days of his administration, directed the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to draft guidelines to help schools do so.

CDC researchers wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week that data from this past fall shows “little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

The researchers wrote that reducing the risk of transmission in schools would require reducing COVID-19 in the greater community, suggesting limitations on indoor dining at restaurants as one way to do so. They back using preventive tools like wearing masks, physical distancing in the classroom and other settings, improving ventilation in school buildings and expanding access to testing in schools.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the findings may not be the same across all types of schools, noting that one report considered a school in a rural part of Wisconsin, and that other schools in urban areas would be more difficult to reopen because of a denser population.

Biden is pushing for a $1.9 trillion relief package that would include $130 billion to safely reopen schools. Congress approved $82 billion for schools and colleges to reopen in a 2020 year-end pandemic relief law.

Officials are also grappling with new variants of the virus that may be more infectious than what has been circulating in the U.S. Initial data suggests that vaccines may not be as effective against the emerging COVID-19 variants, including from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

Sten Vermund, a Yale School of Public Health professor of public health and pediatrics, said he did not think the new variants would make it more difficult to reopen schools than in the past, but warned that the best way to keep the number of cases of all types of the virus down is to continue public health interventions like wearing masks and physical distancing.

“If they continue to be disciplined, which many of them are very disciplined, and they continue to take these precautions, I think they can continue to function,” he said.

Vermund, as part of a school safety task force set up by Connecticut’s education and public health departments, has worked with some school districts in the state on how to safely reopen and reduce transmission of cases within schools. So far, the group has had to investigate two school-based outbreaks, but “out of all the schools in the state, that’s not bad,” he said.

Connecticut and many other states released guidelines for schools considering how to reopen, outlining steps like masking, keeping students physically distanced and emphasizing outdoor activities when possible. Many school districts also opted for hybrid models, allowing students to be in school half the week and remote the other half to allow for more spacing in the classroom.

Some teachers and parents argue that school districts do not all have equal access to the funds necessary to fully implement CDC guidance.

Sean Parr, a New Hampshire parent of two elementary school children, started a petition and contacted dozens of state and federal officials asking for teachers to receive priority access to the vaccines. Parr argues that the ability of a school to disinfect can depend on whether it’s in an affluent area.

“I'm in Manchester, the state’s largest city. In Bedford, a wealthy suburb, they’re using a fogger in between classes to completely disinfect, ceiling to floor. We have nothing even close to that kind of funding,” Parr said.

Waiting for vaccines

In New Hampshire, teachers worry they won't be fully immunized until just before the summer break.

Daryl Konstandt, a teacher’s assistant for seventh graders in Manchester, supported moving back into school buildings. Her students have a hard time paying attention to a screen all day, and many rely on free or reduced lunches.

She returned to her building shortly after officials relaxed the infection rate metric that determined whether schools could reopen.

“We’re seeing the detrimental effects of kids not being able to socialize. Their grades have suffered. ... I felt compelled to spread some positivity and lift their spirits, even if that only helps their work infinitesimally,” Konstandt said.

But the state’s vaccine prioritization schedule should reflect that teachers are essential, she said.

After two days of in-person instruction, one of the teachers she works alongside tested positive. She is now in a 10-day quarantine.

Even in places where teachers moved to the front of the line, the push to return to in-person learning outpaced vaccinations.

In Washington, D.C., in-person learning is set to resume in many schools this week. Teachers lined up for first shots at a high school last week in long lines that snaked for blocks. But they won't receive full immunity for another four to six weeks.

Tina Bradshaw-Smith, a high school physician education teacher and teachers' union leader, pushed back on criticism of educators’ apprehension about returning to classrooms.

“We’re getting tired of looking at the screens, too,” she said. “We want to get in to see our children, but we’re also going to take care of ourselves.”

Bradshaw-Smith said she only learned that full immunity does not occur after the first shot from National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci’s comments on television.

Shortages have delayed appointments for thousands of teachers set to return in northern Virginia and jeopardized second doses for teachers in Delaware.

In North Carolina, vaccine appointments for many teachers were delayed in more populous urban counties after the state expanded eligibility to more seniors.

While many teachers can reserve a spot in line through their school districts, they do not yet have appointment dates, according to Tamika Walker Kelly, an elementary music teacher and president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.

Bradshaw-Smith said her willingness to get back to school outweighed her anxiety about vaccination. She received a flu vaccine for the first time this year, and after a lot of independent research into COVID-19 vaccines reached out this week to her primary care doctor, who calmed her nerves about their safety.

“I’ve been asking every physician that I know. I am always apprehensive about any vaccination. When I was a little girl, I was always the one running away from the doctor,” she said. “It’s the nature of educators that we are going to make sure we do everything we can do to prepare ourselves for our classes. If that means we have to get this shot, we’re going to get this shot.”