Don Brown has been driving a school bus for more than 20 years in the Chicago area. And for all that time, he’s noticed one odd student habit.
As they climb aboard his bus, “when they get to the top step, they always cough,” he says. “This was even before the pandemic! Or, when they get ready to get off, they say ‘Bye, bus driver!’ and they cough.”
Because of this, Brown says, he hopes he’ll be getting the vaccine, “as soon as I can.”
As another semester gets under way, more than half of U.S. public school students are learning in front of tablets and laptops, according to the organization Burbio. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to try to open most schools within his first hundred days in office.
And to make opening schools safer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classed school staff as “frontline essential workers” — meaning they’re among the earliest in line to get the new coronavirus vaccines. But access and timelines vary around the country, and some teachers remain worried about coronavirus continuing to spread in schools, even if they themselves can get the shots.
Per federal vaccination guidelines, school personnel — including custodians, food service workers, and bus drivers — along with child care providers, are in category 1b, just after the elderly in long-term care facilities and health care workers.
Grace Lee, the chief medical officer for practice innovation and pediatric infectious disease physician at Stanford Children’s Health, sat on the committee that drew up those recommendations. She said they put education workers so high up on the list because she’s concerned about the social and academic effects of prolonged school closures. “My worry is that some children are being left behind, and that we need to really be able to make sure that there is the opportunity for everyone to be educated.”
In some states, school workers have already begun to receive vaccines, or expect to in the coming days. NPR asked teachers on Twitter how they felt about getting the vaccine, and got an outpouring of more than 2,000 responses.
Most, like Don Brown in Illinois, were eager to get theirs. But few were as emphatic, or poetic, as Cheryl Coker, who teaches elementary music in Houston:
“I would take it in a box, I would take it with a fox. I would take it in a house, I would take it with a mouse. Vaccinate me here or there, vaccinate me anywhere.”
The Lions’ Den
Regardless of federal guidelines, states are setting their own priority lists. And in states like Utah and Texas, educators have been in tense discussions with state leaders over vaccine priority.
In Utah, where most schools are fully or partially open, Heidi Matthews is president of the state’s largest teacher union, which fought to get teachers moved up the list. She notes that the state historically has among the largest average class sizes in the nation. “I mean, we can’t keep our desks six inches apart, much less do any sort of social distancing.”
She says, “many of our teachers feel like they have been forced into that proverbial lion’s den.”
Which raises a question that has challenged educators and public health experts since the pandemic began: Are classrooms that dangerous when it comes to coronavirus? That’s the subject of two new studies. Both found schools that can operate safely, with precautions, as long as community spread is not too high.
But in most places in the United States, COVID-19 is surging out of control. And that means mixed feelings at this moment for educators, especially where school buildings are open.
When I reached Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of the Dallas public schools, he had just struck a deal to use one of his fieldhouses as a vaccination site, both for his staff and for the local community.
“I feel that we’ve finally been listened to. During this whole pandemic, we’ve been the lost voice out there,” he said, referring to educators. But it’s hard to celebrate, he added, when cases are rising: “I think it’s still going to be horrible between now and spring break. But now I see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a freight train.”
Logistics and “Excruciating choices”
In Kentucky, where schools were ordered closed due to COVID-19 surges in November, Commissioner of Education Jason Glass talked about the logistical challenges of getting shots in arms, which he hopes will begin in February.
First of all, his Department of Education asked all school staff, both public and private, to put in their names to get the vaccine, which in turn determined how many doses the Department of Public Health would order. The request went out over the December holidays. Around 82,000 people quickly put up their hands, or roughly 9 in 10 of the relevant staff members in school systems like Louisville’s.
Meanwhile, local public health departments are busy standing up vaccine sites.
“We have contracts that are in development right now with grocery stores, with commercial pharmacies, big retail stores like Walmart, those are all options.”
And finally comes a set of what Glass calls excruciating choices. “We’re gonna have scarcity associated with the vaccine,” he explained, which means asking:
In what order do people get it? Should those who are older or have pre-existing conditions go first? What about school staff who have the most face-to-face contact with students? Or communities of color that have been disproportionately harmed?
“Those are all variables that I think have to be taken into account.”
An Education Week survey of teachers taken in November found just over 1 in 4 expressing some hesitation about lining up for their shots, somewhat on par with the general population.
Patrick Harris, who teaches middle school humanities at the Roeper School in the Detroit area, says that while he is ultimately willing to take the vaccine, “the hesitation that I have is just thinking about long-term impacts that are not necessarily known.”
Meanwhile, Harris says, members of his family, including his 100-year-old grandmother, are dead-set against it: “My parents, my grandparents, the older black folks in my family, you know, they are like, ‘I’m not getting the vaccine first, if at all, and you better not either.’ “
Many polls have shown more vaccine-hesitancy among African Americans, a legacy of centuries of what the medical ethicist Harriet Washington calls “medical apartheid.”
For educators like Harris who have yet to go back to work in person, the stakes of getting a vaccine are different. Many of the school systems that have remained all remote are in cities, serving large numbers of Black and Hispanic students whose communities have been hit hard by the virus.
Clarice Brazas teaches humanities, currently online at The U School, a Philadelphia public high school. Brazas says she’ll be happy to get the vaccine, but she’ll still be worried about her students spreading the virus, especially those who use public transportation.
“I work in a really small high school,” she says, “but we’ve already had several students who have either lost parents or whose parents have been hospitalized. A lot of our students live with their grandparents.”
No vaccine has yet been approved for children under 16, and younger people are at the back of the line according to CDC guidelines. Dr. Lee, at Stanford, says that means masks, handwashing, social distancing and ventilation are here to stay for at least the rest of this school year.
“Vaccines in my mind are another layer of protection,” she said. “It doesn’t mean all the other barriers go away, but it does mean that if we add that layer in, it adds a huge degree of protection that does not always depend on everyone being perfect one hundred percent of the time.”