January 25, 2022

Acqua NYC

Fit And Go Forward

Opinion | Don’t put teachers at the front of the vaccine line

To begin, the very notion that there should be a single nationwide priority list is scientifically flawed: There is extreme local variation in both the severity and causes of the virus’s spread, which should be reflected in any decisions about vaccination. In the case of putting teachers near the front the line, however, the science is especially dubious. What medical principles indicate that a teacher in rural Oregon, where virus spread is extremely low, should be vaccinated before a worker in a meatpacking facility in Iowa, where covid-19 has been surging?

Prioritizing teachers doesn’t make sense even if the goal is to “get back to normal” as quickly as possible by protecting essential workers. In our urban centers, should teachers get the jump on bus and taxi drivers and transit workers, who are confined in extremely close quarters with the general population but are nonetheless vital to keeping our cities functioning? What about immigrant farm laborers, who have been especially hard-hit by the virus, and restaurant and grocery workers who have braved covid-19 to keep the country fed?

Unlike teachers, these workers have not been afforded the opportunity to work from home. And many of them have had to pay for child care that they cannot afford or miss work without wages to supervise school-age children engaged in the remote learning that teachers unions have demanded.

It is wrong for Biden to pursue a one-size-fits-all approach across the more than 13,000 school districts in the United States simply because teachers unions wield more power in the Democratic Party than do interest groups representing other sectors. And that exercise of power has caused real harm for many Americans — harm that might make Biden’s bouquet to teachers unions less politically beneficial than he thinks it is.

Mounting evidence indicates that remote schooling has been an unmitigated disaster. Across the country, failing grades are skyrocketing. Children stuck in Zoom school are “frustrated and furious,” suffering harm to their mental, emotional and physical health. Many students and families are simply giving up. Last week Chalkbeat reported that public school enrollment in Michigan has declined by more than 53,000 students this fall. College applications are down, especially among low-income and first-generation students.

This is in keeping with a broader trend: The adverse consequences of remote learning are falling disproportionately on poor families and students of color. Reporting in The Post summarizes studies to this effect, with one indicating that, in the spring of this year alone, White students fell behind one to three months in math while students of color lost three to five months.

Nor are children the only people suffering. Some research indicates that nearly 20 percent of parents whose children are learning at home have had to take a leave of absence or quit their jobs in order to supervise them. This burden has fallen disproportionately on women.

In other words, normal citizens might be forgiven for not wanting to reward actions that have harmed kids — especially poor and minority children — and women by giving educators early access to agonizingly scarce vaccine doses.

To be sure, no one wants to see teachers harmed by covid-19. But while the initial fear that teachers expressed was understandable, recent data indicates that teachers and students are at no greater risk of contracting covid in schools than they are elsewhere. Several respected scientists and medical organizations have said the downsides of keeping kids out of school far outweigh the benefits, especially when schools implement common-sense precautions such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

There is reason to be concerned about teachers who are elderly or have comorbidities. But if these groups are prioritized for the vaccine in the general population — as they arguably should be, before favoring any particular profession — at-risk teachers will be protected, without allocating doses to young, healthy teachers at the expense of vulnerable fellow citizens.

To his credit, in announcing his approach to covid-19 in his first 100 days in office, Biden also called for most schools to be opened within that time. But teachers unions hold the key here. And while Biden has little direct control over school operations, he does have the influence to persuade union leaders — and state and local authorities inclined to bow before them — of the critical importance of getting children and teachers back in school immediately.

If Biden does insist on using vaccines as part of his strategy to reopen schools, then the deal must be explicit and transparent: If teachers get vaccination priority, schools will open. Unless they themselves are sick, teachers are to be present and normalcy must resume. This includes the recording of student attendance, the administration of state achievement testing and the issuance of real report cards telling students and families exactly where they stand. Anything less would make a scientifically, morally and politically problematic policy even worse.

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