Opinion: The case for vaccinating teachers

An open letter to Gov. Ned Lamont and acting Department of Public Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford:

We write to you today as local leaders, representatives of educators who have dedicated their lives to public service. Our members include teachers, school psychologists, school counselors, library media specialists, social workers and other educators. Throughout the past 11 months, we have continued to work with our students, whether remotely or in person. Since March 2020, teachers have gone above and beyond for their students and communities — working on lessons late at night, spending their own money on technology and classroom supplies and collaborating with their colleagues to determine how best to reach their students.

If we want to keep our schools open, Connecticut educators must be given priority to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Since vaccines for children have not yet been approved, adults who work with children will be more at risk than adults who do not. Despite the risks, teachers have been diligent in addressing the diverse special needs of all students, including those who are unable to wear masks throughout the school day. Teachers of our youngest learners are unable to socially distance from their students and so are more at risk. Some teachers have comorbidities that would put them in a high-risk group for COVID-19, or are caregivers for their loved ones who have comorbidities.

One of the initiatives of the Biden administration is having most schools nationwide open for in-person learning in the first 100 days of the administration. In order to keep schools open safely, vaccines for educators must be a part of that plan. During a virtual town hall meeting with educators on Jan. 28, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top disease expert, said that a part of keeping schools open is to “get teachers vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can.” In Connecticut, the majority of our schools have been open either in a hybrid model or fully in-person since September. Many schools have had to switch learning models multiple times this year, often with little or no advance notice, causing students and their families anxiety and hardship. These changes in learning model are often a result of positive cases reported within the school community and the contact tracing and requisite quarantines that go along with those cases. Timely vaccination of educators will be crucial in minimizing these disruptions to our students’ education.

At his Feb. 3 Senate confirmation hearing for U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona was asked if he supports priority vaccines for educators and he answered in the affirmative. Cardona also mentioned surveillance testing for teachers. We agree. However, because mass COVID testing of staff and students is not happening currently in our state, we have no way of knowing exactly how widespread this deadly virus is. We must assume we all have it and can transmit it, which is why mitigation strategies such as masks and social distancing have been put in place in schools. Now that a vaccine is available, educators should also be the next in line to be offered the vaccine.

According to the CDC, front-line essential workers (which includes educators) should be prioritized in Phase 1B. Since the vaccines were first approved by the FDA in December, we have been hearing that teachers are next, yet we continue to wait. According to a recent New York Times survey, teachers in 24 states were eligible to receive vaccinations, as of Feb. 9. As governor, you have mentioned the fact that Connecticut is third in the nation in getting its population vaccinated, but at what cost? The state has begun to vaccinate people in congregate settings along with people over the age of 65. We would argue that schools are also congregate settings, and the adults who work there, putting their own health at risk for the sake of educating Connecticut’s youth, should be offered the vaccine along with people over the age of 65.

Educators know there is no substitute for in-person learning. We remain hopeful for the day that we can all safely resume in-person learning, give our students high-fives, cheering them on at their sporting events and concerts, and working hands-on in the community through clubs and extracurricular activities. Going back to any semblance of “normal” for our students will be more likely if all educators are offered the vaccine now, not in March, April, or well into the summer. Governor Lamont and Commissioner Gifford, we call on you to do the right thing for Connecticut’s teachers, our students, and, most importantly, our communities.

Melissa Loteczka, Co-President, Andover Education Association; Jennie Morrell, Co-President, Andover Education Association; Heather O’Brien, Education Association of Clinton; Leigh Neumon, President, Education Association of Cromwell; Zachary Blain, President, East Haddam Education Association; Neil Shilansky, President, East Hampton Education Association; Mark Mahler, President, Ellington Education Association; Jeremy Gervais, President, Glastonbury Education Association; Stephanie DeLucia, Co-President, Hebron Education Association; Christopher Lapsis, Co-President, Hebron Education Association; Rochelle Marcus, Co-President, Mansfield Education Association; Richard Weyel, Co-President, Mansfield Education Association; Pamela Farrington, Co-President, Marlborough Education Association; Amy Farrior, Co-President, Marlborough Education Association; Karen Lutkus, Co-President, CEA-Portland; Sue McDougall, Co-President, CEA-Portland; Nicole Waz, President, Region 4 Education Association; Ethan Spinelli, President, RHAM (Region 8) Education Association; Michelle Bartha, Co-President, Rocky Hill Teachers’ Association; Lori Cebelius, Co-President, Rocky Hill Teachers’ Association; Peter Borofsky, President, Vernon Education Association