You are currently viewing Moving California teachers to the front of the vaccine line might not be enough to reopen schools

Moving California teachers to the front of the vaccine line might not be enough to reopen schools


Many parents and public officials throughout California supported pushing the state’s 1.4 million teachers and other education workers toward the front of the vaccine line, believing that would finally allow schools to reopen.

But the state teacher’s unions — as well as San Francisco’s — have said vaccinations won’t be enough and are calling for additional measures not endorsed by public health experts as necessary for students and staff to safely return to the classroom.

Instead of reopening, it’s looking more likely that many, if not most classrooms will remain in virtual mode for months, if not until the fall, despite the vaccine.

With an ongoing case surge, hospitals overflowing with patients and more than 350,000 dead in the country, fear remains strongly embedded in the debate over reopening schools even as a growing chorus of parents and policymakers are calling for classrooms to bring back kids.

A large coalition of public officials, labor unions and education groups have supported the pending plan to place education workers — the majority still working from home — with first responders and those over 75 in the next group vaccinated in the state.

Health officials are expected to approve the next in line any day, meaning teachers, school staff and child care workers will get the vaccine before bus drivers, postal workers and retail clerks, as well as those incarcerated or homeless.

But that should only happen if educators are heading back to classrooms, said many health officials, education advocates and public officials.

“If you’re not going to be a teacher on the front line you should be where everyone else is,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, a civil rights law firm. “They ought to prioritize the districts that are going back.”

That potentially life and death decision to prioritize educators over others was founded on the urgent need to get schools open and kids back in class, officials said.

Research has increasingly shown that many students are struggling with distance learning, their academic, mental, emotional and physical health at risk. Tens of thousands of young people have simply gone missing from their classes, too many now considered dropouts, their whereabouts unknown. In San Francisco, more than 1,000 students — out of the district’s 52,000 — have been absent more often that not this school year, if they show up at all.

“The inequitable learning loss and increase in mental health issues that has already occurred threatens the future economic and health conditions of millions of students,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, an Oakland-based research and advocacy organization. “We must get kids safely back in school now.”

Children are increasingly considering suicide, according to the Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, and pediatric emergency visits for mental health issues have jumped over the last year by up to 31% according to the Center for Disease Control.

“We need to do everything possible to get schools reopened,” said Dr. George Rutherford, a UCSF infectious disease expert. “If it means jumping (teachers) to the front of the line, that’s fine with me.”

In the simplest terms, the reopening debate pits those arguing for the well-being of children against those concerned about the potential health risks to teachers and other school staff.

Many education workers say a vaccine doesn’t address all their concerns, including whether those vaccinated can still contract and carry the virus, even if they don’t get ill, and infect others, including family members.

Researchers are currently trying to pin down whether that’s true, although most viral illness vaccines also reduce transmission, according to the Federal Drug Administration.

“We cannot safely and fully return to face-to-face instruction without putting our public-school workers at the top of the (vaccine) priority list,” said said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. “But remember, right now there’s no research evidence that the vaccine alone eliminates or reduces transmissions. It reduces illness.”

Health experts, however, believe the vaccine does mean teachers and staff could safely return to school sites.

The need for increased ventilation, masking and social distancing “go away for teachers once they are vaccinated,” Rutherford said, although such mitigation efforts would need to be in place for unvaccinated students.

“The adults have the ultimate benefit, which is jumping the line for the vaccine,” he said. “The best mitigation is to get them vaccinated.”

In addition to giving educators priority in the vaccine line, Gov. Gavin Newsom last week proposed giving districts up to $750 per elementary student to help cover pandemic costs, if they reopen by mid-February.

Superintendents from the state’s largest districts, including San Francisco and Oakland, said the cash incentive won’t matter if the surge continues, pausing school reopenings in many counties, and education workers refuse to return until stringent conditions are met.

They called on Newsom to dictate health and safety requirements needed to bring students back and a requirement to reopen when those are met.

There is little indication from many labor or district officials that the vaccine will be a game changer in terms of reopening many of the public schools that have remained closed to students since March.

The California Teachers Association, for example, said the vaccine is but one aspect of reopening schools safely and that no classrooms should open in the state’s highest-risk purple tier, even if educators are vaccinated.

According to public records obtained by The Chronicle, the United Educators of San Francisco is demanding that schools not reopen until each local zip code has been in the state’s low-risk orange tier for two weeks — something not required by health officials. The union conditions also include staff and students to be tested every two weeks and air quality monitoring in every classroom, among other requirements

San Francisco teachers are also demanding the district install lids on every toilet, which would be closed during flushing to presumably prevent the spread of the virus through aerosols or droplets released, although none of the millions of cases worldwide has been connected to a toilet, Rutherford said.

The teachers union did not respond to whether the availability of the vaccine would alter their demands.

“Normally in bargaining we’re talking about livelihood. Now we’re talking about our lives,” said Susan Solomon, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, in a recorded update last week on the status of labor negotiations. “Make it safe in the orange tier and we will be back.

The prospect that schools would remained closed despite the vaccination of staff sparked outrage among officials and health experts who say the limited vaccines should therefore go to those who face immediate risk instead. That includes grocery clerks, manufacturing workers and those under 75 with underlying health conditions, all of whom currently have a lower vaccine priority than education workers.

San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who organized the effort to prioritize educators, said she hadn’t even considered the possibility classrooms would remain closed once teachers and staff are vaccinated.

“I expect all elementary schools to be opened if all adults are vaccinated on the school site,” she said. “I could not imagine what their excuse would be at that point in terms of the health of the educators.”

Ronen said she fought to get educators the vaccine early, but it was an agonizing position to take given the potential impact on others.

“It is not safe for grocery store workers, it is not safe for farm workers,” she said. “They risk their lives every day to provide their essential jobs.

“The idea that teachers would be vaccinated before others and still not return to school defeats the entire purpose of our advocacy efforts to bump them to the front of the line.”

Oakland teacher Harley Poston said he doesn’t think teachers should be prioritized and he would strike or quit rather return to his classroom this school year.

“When you have such astronomical spread of COVID and such an uncertain and relatively slow roll-out of the vaccine, we are not rushing back to campus anytime soon,” said Poston, who teachers history, government and economics at Skyline High School.

It will take everyone getting vaccinated for schools and society to be safe, he said.

“I’m not going to claim I need the vaccine before my student’s mother who works in restaurants,” said Poston.

Teachers are divided over the issue though.

San Francisco school board President Mark Sanchez, who is also a teacher in Brisbane, said he would be comfortable returning with the vaccine.

“It makes it a lot easier for many teachers,” he said. “I haven’t talked to any teachers that are against going back if they have the vaccine.”

Educators could start getting vaccines within the coming weeks. It’s unclear whether state officials will offer additional guidance on which teachers and school staff should get vaccinated first, if at all, in the next round.

But given the case surge and the novelty of the vaccines it’s understandable that teachers and other school staff have trepidation even with a vaccine, said Dr. Robert Siegel, a Stanford University virologist.

It’s important for them to not only be safe at school, but feel safe as well, he said. That might mean ensuring them there will be testing of students, as well as other mitigation efforts — all while using the vaccine as effectively as possible.

“From the standpoint of public health, the vaccine should initially go to those who are at most at risk as well as those who put others at risk,” Siegel said. “Whether or not this applies to teachers depends upon whether or not they will be meeting with students in person. In particular, early priority should not be afforded to those who will be working remotely.”

Staff writer Nora Mishanec contributed to this story.

Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @jilltucker


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