Carron Johnson is an instructional care aide who works in St Louis, Missouri. She understands the significance of her job in American schools. In the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, her current work model consists of a combination of remote and in-person teaching, as do many other teachers in the St Louis public schools district. With the pandemic causing widespread school closures across the US and disrupting the entire education system, the schools hold an even more vital role in the community.
Johnson, who is also the vice-president for paraprofessionals at AFT Local 420 union, stresses that educating children in a secure environment without getting them sick is crucial for the community. Keeping teachers safe, however, is not a simple or consistent task. The availability of vaccines for teachers and school staff varies across the US and depends more on the location than on the nature of being a frontline educator. It seems like acquiring vaccines is almost like a lottery for many teachers and school personnel.
Johnson emphasizes that teachers and school employees should be allowed to receive the vaccine as early as possible. While there are a variety of emails and websites for making appointments to get vaccinated for Covid-19, no exact dates have been scheduled yet for teachers and school workers. According to Johnson, "You can put your name on the list, and there’s no telling you if you’re going to get a vaccination five months from now." Many educators and elders who have underlying health issues are becoming increasingly anxious.
St Louis has had almost 20,000 Covid-19 cases and more than 360 deaths. At least 530 educators nationwide have reportedly died from the virus, according to the American Federation of Teachers. As of February 8, only less than 3% of Americans have been fully vaccinated for Covid-19, with less than 10% receiving the first dose of the vaccine.
As more schools are ready to re-open in person, educators and staff demand that all employees be vaccinated first. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is set to release new guidelines on school re-openings. Although the CDC has prioritized educators in the second phase of Covid-19 vaccination rollouts, states vary on prioritizing the vaccines’ distribution for teachers and the speed of administration.
The Biden administration’s objective is to reopen the vast majority of K-12 schools within the first 100 days of his presidency, even if all teachers and staff have not yet received vaccination. Data compiled by Education Week shows that at least 24 states have included some or all teachers in their vaccination eligibility, yet delays in acquiring vaccination appointments remain widespread.
In Texas, teachers tried to resist school re-openings before the 2020-21 school year. However, the state imposed that schools should reopen, allowing parents to choose whether to send their children for in-person or remote learning. August Plock, a high school social studies teacher outside Austin, Texas, expressed concern about more parents sending their children to schools as the pandemic continues.
"Many grades have 19 to 20 students per class, and effective social distancing is not practical, which is a significant concern," said Plock. He was only able to obtain a Covid-19 vaccine recently since he is a diabetic, as Texas has yet to designate teachers as priority recipients.
"School district superintendents are pushing the state to prioritize teachers in one phase, but that’s not for another four to six weeks, and it seems there is a vaccine shortage in the state," he added.
Julie Ware, a high school English teacher in Lewes, Delaware, got vaccinated for Covid-19 only because she is at high risk due to acute lymphatic leukemia. The school started hybrid learning in early February, and the shift was overwhelming.
"I can only tell my students so many times to wear their masks properly," Ware said.
Kimberly Vero Lynn, an English teacher at a high school in Butler, Pennsylvania, is still awaiting news about when she and her colleagues will be eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations. Despite having taught in-person throughout the 2020-21 school year, though with several weeks of remote learning due to Covid-19 outbreaks, she feels that their job responsibilities have increased manifold, along with the burden of worrying about their own and their families’ health. Moreover, school boards and administrations have been opaque about their operations, leading to further frustration.
In Chicago, teachers are resisting the efforts of the city and Chicago public schools to reopen educational institutions for in-person learning before teachers can receive vaccinations. In January 2020, the school district and city locked out teachers who refused to report to schools; however, recently they reached an interim agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union about reopening plans.
A high school art teacher, who preferred anonymity due to the ongoing lockouts of teachers and fear of negative consequences, stated that no teachers in their school have received the vaccine yet. They share appointment links among themselves, but with limited success; many of the links are already booked or get cancelled soon after. According to this teacher, lack of availability of vaccines is not only frustrating but also discriminatory. They refer to the situation as “the Vaccine Hunger Games” because the vaccinations seem to be concentrated in more affluent and white areas of the city, whereas most students in their school are Black. They feel disrespected and undervalued in terms of their lives and health, as well as the safety of their students. Instead, their district seems more concerned about restoring the local economy.