Teachers unions have been waging a fierce campaign against Gov. Chris Sununu’s calls for schools to fully reopen without first protecting teachers from COVID-19 by vaccinating them.
Incidentally, as at least one Sentinel letter writer noted, the same argument ought to be made for other school staff who work directly with students — tutors, aides, even administrative and custodial workers.
It’s a valid point, but doesn’t mean teachers, etc., ought to be moved to the head of the vaccine line.
There is more than a trace of hypocrisy in calling for schools to fully reopen while refusing to protect those you’d be putting more at risk of a potentially deadly virus. However, the state’s plan for distributing the vaccine is, given the limited supply, a pretty good one.
There are school staffers who would, for other reasons — age, medical complications — fall into the categories for prioritized vaccination. But for others, it’s hard to argue they should move ahead of more vulnerable Granite Staters.
Rather, the answer lies in continuing to protect teachers and staff without bumping them up in the vaccine line. The way to do this is to follow the same hybrid models schools used when reopening in the fall. Those largely entail a mix of in-person and remote learning, with days off to disinfect all school property, and some social distancing measures in place during in-school lessons.
Not that such a scheme was perfect; last spring’s circumstances made clear, and this past fall to some degree reinforced, that there are substantial weaknesses to remote learning, exacerbated among some student populations. Conversely, there were some — not as many as might have been predicted, but some — cases of COVID that could have spread rapidly within in-school settings. The fact that they didn’t become full-on outbreaks is partially the argument being made to return to full-time, in-person instruction. Overall, schools have not proven to be the petri dishes they were feared to become.
However, that doesn’t mean they’re completely safe.
As many experts have expected, we are in one of the most-dangerous times of this pandemic. The prospect of vaccines eventually bringing to an end the worst of the spread, combined with the sheer frustration at having “normal” life disrupted for the past 10 months, may well lead to premature calls to drop social distancing measures.
But there are consequences to letting up too early. Monday, schools in Gwinnett County, Ga. — which abuts Atlanta — cautiously returned to in-person instruction for students whose parents seek it. The district had begun the month with a hybrid model, but was forced to go fully remote when it ran out of teachers who hadn’t caught or been exposed to the virus. At least one aide died of the disease.
Now, New Hampshire teachers and school staff (along with day care workers) are scheduled to be the first priority of Phase 2 in the state’s vaccine plan, estimated to start vaccinations in March. The groups they’re waiting behind — mainly health-care workers and first responders, long-term-care residents and staff; those over 65, those with compromised health or immunity; and corrections staff — deserve that priority listing.
Until then, those workers shouldn’t be forced into situations where their health is compromised. None of the paths forward in this pandemic are perfect. Some compromises and tough choices have to be made along the way. School workers deserve to be protected, like other front-line “essential” workers. But maintaining social distancing and hybrid learning models can buy the needed time for that to occur without endangering other priority groups.