If Teachers Get the Vaccine Quickly, Can Students Get Back to School?


Vaccination could have the largest impact on schools in places where teaching has remained entirely remote this fall, or where students have spent limited time in the classroom. That includes many big cities and districts in the Northeast and on the West Coast, which have been the most cautious about reopening despite little evidence of schools — and elementary schools in particular — stoking community transmission.

At the same time, there are many schools in the South, the Midwest and the Mountain States where a large percentage of teachers and students are already in classrooms, and where a vaccine would most likely not have as much impact on policy. But even in some of those parts of the country, such as Arizona, distance learning has resumed in recent weeks as coronavirus cases have surged, and vaccinating teachers could help reduce such disruptions.

The nation’s roughly three million full-time teachers are considered essential workers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means that in states that follow federal recommendations, they would be eligible to receive the vaccine after hospital employees and nursing home residents.

But the essential worker group is huge — some 87 million Americans — and states will have flexibility in how they prioritize within that population. Many more people work in schools than just teachers, including nurses, janitors and cafeteria workers, and it is unclear how many of them would be included on the high-priority list.

Public health experts disagree on where teachers should fall, with some saying that in-person education is crucial and others noting that teachers generally have better protections and pay than many other essential workers, such as those in meatpacking plants and day cares. Many teachers have not been in their classrooms since March, either because their districts have not physically reopened, or because they have a medical waiver exempting them.

Groups that represent teachers, for the most part, are eager to see their members fast-tracked for vaccines. Last month, more than 10 educational organizations, including the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, wrote to the C.D.C. asking that school employees be considered a priority group.

“Our students need to come back to school safely,” they wrote. “Educators want to welcome them back, and no one should have to risk their health to make this a reality.”

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