Alas, that Montgomery County school district is in Pennsylvania. But the Montgomery County school district in Maryland should follow suit and mandate coronavirus vaccines for all teachers and staff.
I am a parent of two Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) students who are still too young to get the vaccines, and I know the first day of school will bring even more trepidation and nerves than usual. MCPS has issued several directives, including universal masking, to ensure a safe and successful return to classrooms. Montgomery County recently reinstated a mask mandate for all individuals in indoor public spaces and implemented new vaccination protocols for county employees. These steps will help, but they’re not enough to give families peace of mind. The failure to require coronavirus vaccines for teachers and staff is a glaring omission by MCPS, one that threatens the entire community and increases the odds of significant coronavirus outbreaks in our schools.
To be sure, getting kids back into their classrooms is critically important. Long-term school closures nationwide have affected children’s academic achievement, social-emotional development and mental health. The Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence, a group of 25 education and civil rights organizations, has documented the harm of school closures in Montgomery County, particularly for children of color. Educational disparities have been further exacerbated during the pandemic. The return to in-person learning is essential to close these gaps.
In response to my email to the Montgomery County Board of Education urging a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff, a staffer replied that “MCPS continues to work with our state and local health department to determine appropriate mandates.” It does not take a degree in epidemiology to realize that a school year that has not even begun is already threatened by the delta variant surge. On July 1, the 14-day average new coronavirus case rate in Montgomery County per 100,000 residents stood at 0.7. It is now 8.0 — a greater than elevenfold increase in only six weeks that has vaulted Montgomery County back into the “moderate” category for risk of transmission — and it is rapidly approaching “high” transmission risk.
This surge is happening despite Montgomery County having one of the highest coronavirus vaccination rates in the nation. This does not mean that the vaccines are ineffective; research continues to show that vaccines remain exceptionally effective at preventing severe cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Rather, the surge illustrates how devastatingly contagious the delta strain is. We do not yet fully understand the short- or long-term impact of the delta variant on our children, but we do know that caseloads and hospitalizations among young children are rising. This situation demands caution and even greater fidelity to science and public health.
Despite our high vaccination rate, more than 35 percent of Montgomery County residents are unvaccinated, including the vast majority of MCPS’ nearly 70,000 elementary school students. We have already seen some schools shut their doors almost immediately after opening them — leading the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, to announce that she supports vaccine mandates for teachers. Young children are best protected when the adults around them do the right thing; a coronavirus vaccine mandate for MCPS teachers and staff would demonstrate that principle in action.
Since coronavirus vaccines were authorized last December, MCPS has consistently encouraged teachers and staff to get vaccinated, partnered with Johns Hopkins to ensure an adequate vaccine supply and sponsored clinics at schools and other neighborhood sites. But as of June, several thousand MCPS personnel were still not vaccinated. Persuasion and encouragement have only brought us so far; all it takes is one case to light a match that engulfs an entire school in flames. We must do more and we should not wait.
Mandating coronavirus vaccines will help ensure a healthy and safe school year for everybody. Developing the particulars of such a plan, including exemptions for those with medical conditions that preclude vaccination, is necessary. But on whether such a mandate is needed, there is no question, and there should be no delay.
Our teachers are heroes; our school staff are essential workers; our children are everything. Let’s do this for them.