Whether teachers must be vaccinated before in-person lessons resume has become another inflection point in heated debates about when and how schools should safely reopen, as the United States nears its one-year mark grappling with the pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 people here.
White House officials had for weeks given conflicting answers about whether teachers needed to be vaccinated before schools are reopened. On Sunday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki echoed guidelines released earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which state that vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening schools, though it advised that teachers should have priority access to coronavirus vaccines.
“The CDC is saying in order to be safe, there are a number of steps that can be taken. Vaccinating teachers is one of them,” Psaki said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” before listing an array of other measures, including smaller class sizes, separating children on school buses, providing personal protective equipment to schools and making testing facilities more available.
“Our secretary of education will work with school districts to implement that,” Psaki continued. “So [teachers] should be prioritized. But our science experts are saying it’s not a prerequisite and that’s the guidelines that we follow.”
President Biden said when he took office last month that he wanted the majority of American schools reopened within the first 100 days of his term — or by late April — a goal he has since clarified to mean most students in kindergarten through eighth grade returning to in-person learning five days a week.
When asked Sunday if that goal was still realistic, Psaki simply stated that it remained the White House’s “objective,” but said schools needed more money to be able to make the necessary improvements and hire more personnel to reopen safely. She, like Biden, once again called on Congress to pass his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which includes $130 billion directed to investments in school facilities.
“Many schools across the country don’t have the resources to be able to invest in improving facilities and hiring more bus drivers and hiring more temporary teachers so we can have smaller class sizes,” Psaki said. “Every school in the country does not have that funding and does not have the resources. And we need to, from the federal government, help address that.”
Republicans have criticized the size of Biden’s covid-19 relief plan, with many questioning the necessity of the money included toward school reopenings in the bill. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said the funds included in the package weren’t “targeted” enough. On the same program, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) accused teachers unions — specifically naming the American Federation of Teachers — of derailing Biden’s efforts to reopen schools.
AFT president Randi Weingarten defended her members Sunday, saying nearly three-quarters of them reported being fearful they would bring the coronavirus home. She also agreed that “not every single teacher has to be vaccinated before you open any schools,” but stressed that her members are understandably fearful of the risks.
“I want to debunk this myth that teachers unions — at least our union — doesn’t want to reopen schools,” Weingarten said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. " … Look, we’ve had 500,000 deaths and we’ve had such grim realities here. But the teachers of this country understand that in-person education is really important.”
Weingarten said “there’s no perfect solution” for how to reopen, but lauded some places that in her view have done well.
“I think New York City has done a pretty good job in terms of showing the way. Big school district. Lots of issues in terms of old buildings. We learned a lot from what New York City did in September and October,” she said.
Weingarten also cited similar efforts made in Oregon, West Virginia and Ohio, as well as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s handling of reopening schools in the nation’s capital, noting that Bowser had made a push to vaccinate teachers and school employees in the past few weeks.
“If the NFL could figure out how to do this in terms of testing and the protocols — if schools are that important, let’s do it,” Weingarten said. “My members want it. They just want to be safe.
Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also weighed in somewhat tentatively on the safety of school reopenings, saying it was difficult to assign a numerical figure to the level of risk an unvaccinated teacher runs in a reopened school.
“You can’t say, ‘What is the risk. Give me a number.’ Obviously being in school is similar to being in the community so the risk of a teacher getting infected in the school is very likely very much similar to what you would see in the community,” Fauci said on “Meet the Press.”
Fauci, who has often given frank assessments of the precautions he is taking in his personal life, also hedged on whether he himself would feel comfortable going into a classroom and teaching right now.
“You know, it’s tough because I’ve not been in that situation. I can tell you I have a daughter who I adore who is actually doing just that right now as we speak,” Fauci said. “I understand the concern that people have.”
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Fauci said that teachers should be prioritized among essential personnel for vaccination, but that he also anticipated the “very rapid” downward trend of community infections would help teachers and schools to make their decisions in the weeks ahead.
Fauci also signaled that it might be some time before the United States reaches pre-pandemic “normality,” suggesting that it was possible Americans would still be wearing masks in 2022 to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.
“If you combine getting most of the people in the country vaccinated with getting the level of virus in the community very, very low, then I believe you’re going to be able to say, for the most part, we don’t necessarily have to wear masks,” Fauci said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Hutchinson appeared on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. Hutchinson appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” to say he thought the funds in Biden’s coronavirus relief package were not targeted enough.