By Mark Powell
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced that California’s plan for COVID-19 vaccine distribution will prioritize health care workers, first responders and those in congregate healthcare settings. Right after those listed should be teachers and school support staff so we can reopen our schools and get students back into the classroom for full-time, in-person instruction.
Teachers are arguably the most essential workers in our society and we should urge the governor to make them a priority. In addition to providing an education, they give children purpose, set them up for success as citizens, and inspire them to succeed in life.
However, many teachers are fearful of contracting COVID-19 and refuse to teach in person, even when provided with the same personal protective equipment that is worn by grocery clerks, bus drivers, janitorial workers, airline employees and restaurant workers. Such essential personnel show up to work every day, interacting directly with the public, and are not given the option to work remotely. Some teachers are eager to get back into the classroom for face-to-face teaching, but there are still many who are apprehensive and refusing to do so.
Even though the data shows that shutting down schools is not an effective way to protect teachers and students from contracting COVID-19, it’s not surprising that some teachers are afraid to return to the classroom. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense for teachers to be among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, because once vaccinated they can safely engage in on-campus instruction and our schools can be reopened safely.
Economists have forecast that until schools are completely reopened we cannot fully reopen our economy. It is estimated that 15% of our labor force cannot return to work if schools do not open. School closures have caused tremendous financial stress on many families as parents left the workforce to stay home with their children to assist them with distance learning. Once schools are completely open for full-time, in-person instruction, these parents can reenter the workforce and alleviate some of the financial burdens caused by the coronavirus shutdown.
Requiring teachers to be vaccinated before teaching in the classroom is another option to consider. Schools districts are no strangers to mandated vaccines. In fact, California health laws require that all students under age 18 to be immunized against certain diseases unless they are exempt for medical reasons.
At the time of registration, the school is required to have proof that a child has received all currently due immunizations. A student will be excluded from attending school if these requirements are not met. If schools require students to be immunized, then teachers could also be required to be immunized for COVID-19—because they could spread the disease to students.
School closures were intended to keep students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but for many students this has ushered in another set of dangers: anxiety, depression and other serious mental health conditions that negatively affect students and their families. According to a nationwide Gallup poll in June, nearly 3 in 10 parents say their child is undergoing emotional or mental harm from social distancing and school closures. If we can reopen our schools, we can alleviate some of these mental health conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Data provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics speaks for itself: children make up less than 0.23% of all COVID-19 deaths. In San Diego County there have been NO reported COVID-19 deaths under the age of 19. However, there have been several deaths in this age group from suicide, drug overdose and domestic violence.
Teachers play a vital role in the identification of students who are in need of mental and physical health services so they should be given priority when it comes to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Even with schools providing online access to mental health services, many at-risk students are falling through the cracks.
All things considered, a student’s safety and mental health should be given the same priority as their physical health. So when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations, teachers and support staff should be given top priority so they can get back into the classroom and teach, because addressing student safety and mental health must be our number one concern.
Mark Powell is a trustee serving on the San Diego County Board of Education.
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