The Ethics of Vaccinating Teachers—and Keeping Schools Closed

On January 8, when New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that at the present rate it would take 14 weeks to vaccinate the first two priority groups, I immediately opened my calendar. Teachers and education workers are in the second group, so by mid-April, I figured, my children’s schools would finally open full-time.Parents throughout the country have been making similar calculations. Like in New York, teachers in a majority of states have been bumped to near the front of the Covid-19 vaccine line, ahead of most other people, including millions who are at a higher risk of illness and death than many teachers. From Tennessee to Illinois to New Jersey, teachers' unions around the country vigorously advocated for this privileged position. “We cannot safely and fully return to face-to-face instruction without putting our public school workers at the top of the priority list,” said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. A letter signed by 11 education associations, including the National Educational Association and American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s two largest teachers' unions, sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked for school personnel to have “priority access” to vaccinations in order to “fully reopen our school buildings.”

These pleas always emphasize the “importance of fully reopening” schools. Yet the specifics of this implicit agreement have been, at best, left deliberately vague—and, at worst, in the view of bioethicists and others, an unfulfilled quid pro quo.

Raising concerns that the vaccine may not eliminate transmission, Briggs and the CTA explicitly said the vaccination of teachers will not be enough on its own for schools to reopen. If an area’s case rate is too high, that also would preclude opening, they said. The president of the largest teachers' union in Washington state said teacher vaccination is not "a guarantee that schools can and should open." Scott DiMauro, the president of Ohio’s largest teachers’ union, said even a widely distributed vaccine is “not a panacea,” noting that CDC distancing guidelines, which compel low-density classes and hybrid schedules, should continue through the end of the school year regardless of teacher vaccinations. The head of the teachers' union in Fairfax, Virginia, said that the hybrid model in their schools must continue even after staff are vaccinated, and that it’s not until all students are vaccinated that full-time school can be considered.
Many district administrators have made similar statements, often basing their argument on state distancing guidelines that were contrived last summer, well before vaccines were even on the horizon. The superintendent of schools in Needham, Massachusetts, said that while he’s planning for a full return in the fall, at the same time he’s also planning for hybrid and remote learning, “because we just don’t know where this virus is going, and what the guidance will be for physical distancing.” Without a vaccine for children, he added, opening school full-time may not be safe, and he questioned whether they’ll even be permitted to do so "without physical distancing requirements in place." Never mind that Massachusetts only requires 3 feet of distance in schools, spacing that would allow Needham to comply with guidelines and run full-time at full capacity. (He didn’t mention the prospect of opening in the spring, after staff have had the opportunity for vaccination, despite the fact that staff would be no less protected than they would be in the fall.)
Last week, the school board of Davis, California, where 8,500 students haven’t seen a classroom since last March, approved resolutions requiring—in addition to staff vaccinations—asymptomatic testing, hospital-grade air purifiers, and that the community must be in the state’s second-highest infection tier or lower just to consider beginning hybrid learning. Governor Gavin Newsom has said he will not compel teachers back to work even after they are vaccinated.Asked if the schools in my kids’ district, north of New York City, would move to full-time after educators have had the opportunity for vaccination, the superintendent suggested that our schools would remain hybrid, regardless of vaccinations, until the governor changes the distancing guidelines. When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the New York Department of Health said that the school safety guidelines implemented at the beginning of the school year, which include distancing, are still in effect. She also noted that “more data is needed on long-term immunity and to determine whether those who are vaccinated can still be asymptomatic ‘carriers’ of the virus.”