Want more in-person classes? Vaccinate educators

*This piece first appeared in the Charlotte Observer

On the day North Carolina’s first COVID vaccine was administered last month, Governor Cooper tempered optimism, saying, “Seeing vaccinations underway gives us hope at the end of a hard year. But this virus continues to be extremely contagious and deadly.”

In the six weeks since, we’ve seen a frightening nationwide spike in viral infection rates and hospitalizations.  A change in guidelines by the CDC expanded early vaccine eligibility to include everyone age 65 and older.  The new criteria placed a lot of people ahead of essential workers, effectively moving North Carolina’s educators further back in the line.  There are currently no vaccines on the horizon for the vast majority of CMS educators and the rest of Group 3, and Mecklenburg County has yet to announce how it intends to vaccinate such a large group.

The lack of educator vaccines hasn’t stopped those advocating for an immediate return to in-person learning.  A recent opinion piece by CDC staff is being used as ammunition in that battle–despite the fact that it calls for a number of approaches that aren’t currently in place, including closing restaurants, ensuring outside air ventilation and using screening tests in schools to identify asymptomatic carriers.  

The rocky vaccine rollout has been confounded by factors such as limited supply and logistical snags.  But for many local educators, returning to in-person learning at a time of double digit positivity rates without being vaccinated first is a risk they’d prefer not to take.

Last week Alabama’s State Health Officer expanded that state’s vaccine eligibility to include educators.  The move came shortly after the deaths of four Montgomery Public Schools teachers led the state’s fourth largest district to draw a line in the sand and say classes would remain remote until vaccines were available for employees.  

That kind of support for North Carolina educators is sorely needed from decision makers at all levels.  Instead, having faced tremendous backlash from reopening advocates after recommending virtual instruction, County Health Director Gibbie Harris made one key change last week when extending a county health directive through February:  language advising remote learning has been removed.  The county’s announcement of the modified directive paraphrased the same CDC opinion piece as saying “with appropriate safety measures in place schools can be a safe location for students to learn.” It failed to mention that the safety measures in question are not actually in place.  

Harris’s 180 paves the way for the Board of Education to return students and staff for face-to-face instruction in February.  To be clear, the board has no control over vaccines beyond advocating for student-facing staff to be prioritized–which it did before vaccines were even available.  But it is responsible for deciding whether to resume in-person learning at a time when CMS dashboard metrics for public health are still well in the red and vaccines are not on staff calendars.

North Carolina’s educators have grown accustomed to feeling underappreciated in a state that has valued tax cuts over education for years.  Time and again we’ve heard lip service to the sacrifices we make and gratitude for our willingness to do more with less.  But in this moment the stakes of doing without a vaccine are life and death.  That’s a scary prospect.

Imagine if all stakeholders involved in this pandemic education struggle were to unite around a shared goal of calling on federal, state, and local officials to solve supply and distribution problems and begin Group 3 vaccinations.  Imagine if those utilizing lawsuits, harassment, and financial resources to push for an immediate return to face-to-face learning were to instead use their energy to make that return considerably safer for all involved, including their own families.  

Like so many things about this pandemic, remote learning has not been ideal for anyone, and teachers want nothing more than to be back in the classroom where we belong.  Let’s get our educators vaccinated so we can do so safely.  

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