If we’re making them go back to work, NC should join growing list of states to vaccinate teachers

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[This post has been updated — see below.]

The New York Times reported this morning that 24 states plus Washington, DC are making COVID-19 vaccinations available to teachers. Unfortunately, North Carolina is not on the list.

The report comes at the same time that many North Carolina school districts, at the urging of Gov. Cooper and other state leaders, are moving to reopen schools.

The confluence of these two developments simply doesn’t make any sense.

While it’s certainly a top priority to reopen schools, it’s not going to work well if many teachers are too frightened to come back. And if the move ends up causing some teachers to get sick and die — something that’s a distinct possibility — then the reopening will not be just premature, but a disaster.

As veteran Mecklenburg educator Justin Parmenter wrote in an insightful recent op-ed for Raleigh’s News & Observer:

“…for many local educators, returning to in-person learning at a time of double digit positivity rates without being vaccinated first is a risk they’d prefer not to take.”

The Times story reports that Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon, which has been vaccinating teachers for a while now, put it this way:

“For every teacher who is back in the classroom, they help 20, 30, 35 students get their lives back on track.” 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.”

None of this is to imply that decisions in this area are easy.

Anyone paying attention understands that the Cooper administration is in an almost impossible position as it struggles to respond to loud, competing and often mutually exclusive demands. Everyone wants to be vaccinated quickly at a time when a coherent national plan is just getting implemented by the new administration in Washington and vaccine supplies remain frustratingly low. Meanwhile, thousands of children and parents struggle mightily with the inadequacies of remote education.

But as is the case in so many other aspects of the pandemic, neither hope, wishes, nor sheer force of will can make things better. It’s true that there have been some encouraging data about the COVID-19 transmission rates in schools, but that fact will come as cold comfort to the handful of individuals who will lose their health as a result of reopening. What’s more, much of this research was conducted prior to the arrival of the new more contagious virus variants. Add to this the fact that so many aspects of normal, in-person schooling are impossible with masks and social distancing and the urgency of reopening is further called into question.

The bottom line: Teachers want to go back to work, but under safe conditions. North Carolina should join the growing list of states that are making that possible.

[UPDATE: The Public School Forum of North Carolina issued a fact sheet today calling for the vaccination of teachers that read in part:

“We understand the desire to increase the number of students who have access to in-person learning opportunities in the coming weeks. In order to reopen all public school buildings safely — and for the health and safety of those who are already working and learning in school buildings that have reopened —  we must ensure that all educators and school personnel have prioritized access to COVID-19 vaccines, along with PPE, social distancing, cleaning supplies, ventilation, and student health checks, to ensure the safety of our educators and students. North Carolina has administered over 1,000,000 doses of the vaccine, and the total number of teachers and other school personnel represents less than 20% of that amount. North Carolina can do this expediently.”

Click here to read the full statement.]

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