Part of the problem is the chaotic logistics of vaccine distribution as the pandemic rages on. Not all teachers can get the shots right away, and even for those who do, the process takes time: Vaccines must be delivered in twin doses almost a month apart. Even in the best case, most educators will not be fully vaccinated until late February at earliest.
Those who get the shots say it makes them hopeful. “It gives me a reassurance I haven’t had until now,” Maryland educator Susie Shafer said after being immunized Friday.
Virginia’s largest school system — Fairfax County Public Schools, whose 186,000 students are currently learning online-only — began administering vaccine shots to teachers in mid-January. Roughly 22,000 staffers, representing nearly 90 percent of the workforce, swiftly signed up for shots, but supply shortages later forced health officials to cancel some of those vaccinations.
Still, spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell sought to distance reopening from the vaccination effort.
“Returning to in-person instruction is not tied to employees’ vaccinations,” she said. Along “with other health and safety mitigation strategies, it is one way to strengthen our ability to gradually return students and staff to in-person instruction.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said health-care staffers and residents of long-term-care facilities should get shots first, followed by a second-priority group of adults 75 or older and “essential” workers, including teachers. But the federal guidance is not binding and states have final say, which has led to widely varying strategies.
Vaccines are available this week for teachers in at least 22 states and the District, according to a tally kept by EdWeek. And a handful of governors, citing their desire to reopen schools, are prioritizing teachers beyond what the CDC recommends. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown (D) is delivering the vaccine to teachers first, before the elderly and people with preexisting health conditions.
These efforts are sparking opposition from some who question why educators working remotely, without a clear end in sight, should receive vaccinations alongside or ahead of more vulnerable populations. In D.C., parents and education advocates were furious when the city chose to vaccinate teachers and school staff before child-care employees, who skew older than teachers and have been reporting to work in-person for months, often for minimum wage.
Daniel López-Cevallos, an associate professor of health equity at Oregon State University, said it is unfair that some teachers will get the vaccine before essential employees who cannot work from home: “the firefighters, the police officers, the correction officers, the agricultural workers, the postal workers.” He noted that it is already challenging to persuade workers of color to trust the vaccine, given glaring inequities in American health care and the country’s history of medical mistreatment.
“Those workers, who disproportionately come from communities of color and are low-wage, have been overexposed and sacrificing all these months — so it’s important, now that we have a vaccine, to say, ‘You made all these sacrifices, here is something we can give back to you,’ ” he said. “As for teachers, as supply increases we’ll eventually get there.”
Elsewhere, officials are asking teachers to return to school without vaccinations — and that, too, is spurring protest. On Sunday, the Chicago Teachers Union directed its members to work remotely in dramatic defiance of administrative orders to return for face-to-face instruction.
The chaos around teacher vaccination is colliding with a renewed push to reopen schools, fueled in part by the transition to the Biden administration. The president, who spoke about the importance of in-person learning in his inaugural address, has vowed to reopen most K-8 schools during his first 100 days on the job.
It also comes as the pandemic grows ever more deadly: The United States has passed 25 million coronavirus cases and 400,000 deaths. Meanwhile, a new, more contagious variant of the virus has appeared, which experts warn could become the dominant strain in the United States by March — a date that will mark one full year of online learning for many parts of the country.
'Vaccination does not solve all the problems'
On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the public schools in Talbot County offer an unusual counterpoint to the some of the vaccine drama. Teachers and staff have been getting shots for a few weeks, and the process is three-quarters complete.
Over the next few weeks, the school system hopes every full-time employee who signed up is vaccinated.
Even so, Superintendent Kelly Griffith is not waiting for second doses to open schools. The system of 4,524 students, which offered some classroom learning in the fall, returned to on-campus teaching for small groups of students with special needs on Jan. 11. Other teachers came back this week. Next week, the school system could return to hybrid learning for prekindergarten through 12th grade, depending on health metrics.
“It is so important to get our kids back in school,” Griffith said.
Griffith’s approach — working closely with the county’s health officer and separating the vaccine effort from reopening plans — mirrors what many school leaders are doing in the Washington region.
In some places, the unclear relationship between immunization and reopening has helped fuel a vaccine rollout to teachers marked by confusion, conflicting approaches and uncertainty over supply, as is the case in many states nationwide.
In the capital, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has stressed that the timing of school staff vaccinations will not be linked to reopening.
Nonetheless, the city is apparently hoping vaccinations will build goodwill among the city’s teachers ahead of the return to classrooms. On Friday, D.C. released 3,900 appointments for teachers and support staff who are slated to work in-person when schools partially reopen Feb. 1. By the following Monday morning, 65 percent of those slots were filled.
But Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said that opening schools safely requires more than vaccines. It’s also about health metrics and safety measures in schools.
“Having the vaccine available for teachers,” she said at a town hall Monday with parents and educators, “does not solve all the problems.”
In Maryland, meanwhile, a limited vaccine supply is forcing teachers to “compete” with other priority groups for a chance at immunization, according to acting health secretary Dennis Schrader. There are three times as many people eligible for vaccination as there are vaccines, but Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has said the bottleneck in distribution is deliberate, meant to ensure every dose goes into an arm as soon as possible.
Hogan is adding to the turmoil by pressing school leaders to take immediate action to reopen schools, setting a deadline of March 1. He argues that waiting longer will only intensify academic losses and social-emotional stresses that children face. But critics call the date arbitrary and dismissive of what teachers need.
And in Northern Virginia, school officials have begun to vaccinate thousands of staffers, even as the largest school systems continue to instruct students online-only. Fairfax County’s vaccination plan hit a serious snag Monday, when a sudden depletion of Virginia’s vaccine supply forced officials to unexpectedly cancel the scheduled inoculations of roughly 15,000 Fairfax staffers.
Like its neighboring systems, Fairfax has repeatedly delayed the return to school. That hesitation goes against pressure from Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who said in mid-January that six months worth of state data suggests schools can reopen safely with appropriate health protocols. He said it is “critical” to return children to school.
“And while getting everyone vaccinated is not necessary to reopen schools,” he said, “it will make it a lot easier.”
Others in Virginia vehemently disagree.
Fairfax teachers associations are insisting that all employees receive both shots before heading back to campuses. After teacher inoculations were canceled this week, the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers called on school leaders to delay reopening to compensate.
In Maryland’s Montgomery County, some school board members link vaccinations to reopening. Said Board President Brenda Wolff: “We are ready to go when teachers are vaccinated.”
And in neighboring Prince George’s County, where a vaccine rollout for school employees starts this weekend, Chief executive Monica E. Goldson said about 9,000 teachers and staff have said they want the shots. That, combined with declining virus numbers, would clear the way for a reopening as soon as the spring for small groups of students, Goldson said at a recent state hearing.
The push for vaccinations is reasonable as the pandemic surges, said Meagan Fitzpatrick, an infectious-disease transmission modeler for the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She said Maryland’s level of community transmission means any non-vaccinated teacher walking into a classroom is taking a “direct, individual risk.”
Despite the benefits, not all teachers in rural Talbot were on board.
At first, just 50 percent of surveyed employees said they wanted a vaccination. The number increased to two-thirds as registration opened, clinics were being held and more people learned about the vaccine, officials said.
Some never hesitated.
Anne Miller, a special-education teacher, was among the first in Talbot’s public school system to be vaccinated. She was clear about the choice.
“I felt it brought me one step closer to the day when I could hug them again,” she said of her students, who have autism and other disabilities. “They’re my priority.”
Similar feelings inspired Susie Shafer, the educator who received her first dose of the vaccine Friday. She is an elementary literacy coach in Talbot County.
“I’m ready to get back in my building,” she said. “I want to get back and see the little ones.”
'Do I want to hold onto the past?'
It has been more difficult to build trust in vaccination among educators of color — educators like Allison Akanni, a Black woman who teaches Northern Virginia high-schoolers about the criminal justice system.
When Akanni opened an email this month saying she was eligible for vaccination as an Alexandria City Public Schools employee, she was instantly suspicious. She couldn’t help recalling America’s history of exploiting Black people to test experimental medical treatments, as happened during the Tuskegee syphilis study.
“I understand the history of my people and my culture,” Akanni said.
But she also knows a return to the classroom will be impossible in the near future without a vaccine: Akanni, 35, is immunocompromised. And she knows, every day, how much she misses her students.
Akanni resolved to learn everything she could. She read CDC guidance and journal articles published by the American Medical Association. She asked friends, family and doctors for advice. Weeks passed as she tried to make up her mind.
She is like many Black Americans, whose communities have been hit hardest by the virus but who are also most likely to mistrust the vaccine. To combat this skepticism, America’s top Black doctors and scientists have launched a nationwide, government-funded confidence-building mission, although early results are mixed.
Raymond Weeden — executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school in Southeast Washington with a mostly Black student body and staff — is waging a similar campaign on a smaller scale. Weeden, who views vaccines as a key step to reopening, said many parents and employees are asking him questions about vaccination.
Weeden wants his parents and staff to absorb all the information they possibly can. He has brought in Black doctors to speak at several town halls aimed at educating staff and families about the vaccine.
“I’m not telling people what to do,” Weeden said. “I’m okay with a ‘no’ when people don’t know anything about it. But I want them to be in the ‘maybe’ and ‘yes’ camp after they have the information.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Akanni had an epiphany. She was leading a class from home, staring at what passed for her students’ faces: black squares on Zoom, because no one was willing to turn on their cameras.
She thought to herself, “I can’t do another year of this.” Then she thought about history, again, and how it was now shaping her life.
“I asked myself, do I want to hold onto the past and not get the vaccine because I’m terrified?” she said. “Or do I choose to attach myself to a future where I’m around, and I can do my job, and I can be there for my children?”
Akanni decided: She would sign up for the vaccine.
Erin Cox contributed to this report.