The administration’s position that teachers should be prioritized for vaccines but that vaccination should not be a prerequisite for schools to reopen might make sense from an administrative and scientific standpoint. But it may not be a sustainable political stance for much longer since it is confusing for the public and doesn’t get parents any closer to understanding when their schools might open. By saying that teachers are frontline workers and should get priority access to limited doses, the administration is also implying they are at significant risk. But it then appears to downplay the risk by saying it shouldn’t stop schools getting back to business in a manner that is likely to worry teachers.
This problem is just one aspect of the Covid-19 crisis — but it shows the massive complexity of the task of getting the country back open in the coming year and the lack of a playbook for what is a once in 100-year public health crisis.
The threat from variants
The uncertainty is being exacerbated by the emergence of dangerous new variants that could make the virus much more contagious in March and April; multi-layered levels of government authority; the shifting timeline on the availability of vaccine doses; and the raging battles between school districts and teachers’ unions over whether it is safe for teachers to return to campus before they are vaccinated.
Paradoxically, the more good news there is on the apparently ebbing pandemic, the more difficult the schools question becomes since improving conditions will only build political pressure over the issue. New cases of Covid-19 are plummeting, hospitalizations are dropping and the pace of vaccinations are accelerating. The White House announced Wednesday that 1.7 million Americans are being vaccinated each day, based on a seven-day average — up from 1.1 million four weeks ago.
All of this is a cause for considerable hope. But epidemiologists have been warning Americans, even those who have already received the vaccine, to continue to mask up and maintain social distancing because the virus could mutate in unpredictable ways leading to a fresh surge in cases this spring — arming teachers’ unions with a powerful new argument for holding off on returning to campus.
The possibility that the current easing of the crisis — albeit with new cases far higher than during last summer’s Covid-19 spike — could just be the eye of the storm before a new wave of variant-driven infection — helps explain some of the uncertainty about high schools and Biden’s apparently unambitious timeline for a return to normal life after he mentioned Christmas in the CNN town hall.
“While cases and hospitalizations continue to move in the right direction, we remain in the midst of a very serious pandemic, and we continue to have more cases than we did, even during last summer’s peak,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a White House briefing on Wednesday. “The continued spread of variants that are more transmissible could jeopardize the progress we have made in the last month if we let our guard down,” she said, noting that as of Tuesday, the US has confirmed 1,277 cases of the B117 variant across 42 states.
“It is more important than ever for us to do everything we can to decrease the spread in our communities by increasing our proven measures that prevent the spread of Covid-19,” Walensky added. “Fewer cases means fewer opportunities for the variant to spread and fewer opportunities for new variants to emerge.”
Last week, the CDC introduced a new set of guidelines to help local authorities judge when it was safe to go back. They include five key strategies including the universal and correct wearing of masks; physical distancing; washing hands; cleaning facilities and improving ventilation; and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.
There are massive complications, however. It is going to be difficult in crowded, often old, school buildings to provide proper spacing and ventilation. Distancing on school buses is another challenge. And one reason why the return of high schoolers may be delayed is that their curriculum makes it harder to keep them divided into small groups and in one room.
With this in mind, White House officials have been stepping up their calls for Congress to move quickly on Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief and economic rescue plan.
“Smaller class sizes, ensuring there are more school buses, having the equipment and the testing available — this costs money. And that’s why the passage of the American Rescue Plan — the $130 billion for schools — is so important to do,” the White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said on Wednesday.
In the midst of that concern about emerging variants, the Biden administration’s messaging about what their exact goals are — how many days of in-person instruction in K-8 schools would constitute success, for example, and exactly how teachers should be prioritized in the vaccine lineup — has been hazy at best.
Last week, when White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked to define what Biden meant by open schools, she said the administration’s goal was have in-person “teaching at least one day a week in the majority of schools by day 100.” During the CNN town hall in Wisconsin Tuesday night, Biden said that was a “a mistake in the communication” and said he’d like to see the majority of K-8 schools open five days a week.
“I think we’ll be close to that at the end of the first 100 days. We’ve had a significant percentage of them being able to be opened,” Biden told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
On the question of whether vaccinations are a pre-requisite for returning to campus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said during a White House coronavirus briefing Wednesday that “even though we don’t feel that every teacher needs to be vaccinated before you can open a school, that doesn’t take away from the fact that we strongly support the vaccination of teachers.”
Psaki clarified the official White House position during her briefing Wednesday, stating that “neither the President, nor the vice president believes that (vaccinating teachers) is a requirement” for schools to return to in-person learning. She stressed that, in the interim, schools needed to be working on other mitigating measures to keep teachers safe like social distancing, smaller class sizes, better ventilation and sanitation. Many teachers’ unions, however, clearly don’t believe those measures amount to adequate protection.
Ohio, for example, has a four-week plan to get all teachers vaccinated by March. In West Virginia, teachers over 50 are eligible for the vaccine, but it won’t be offered to those under 50 until a later date. In Nevada, counties determine eligibility and so teachers are only being vaccinated in some counties. All teachers are technically eligible in California under state guidelines, but counties determine the availability of shots for each group — and in Los Angeles, for example, teachers will not be able to make vaccination appointments until March 1.
Exemplifying the complexity at the local level, elementary schools in Los Angeles County were finally cleared to open this week for the first time in almost a year — including in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the second largest in the nation — because the case rate in the county had finally fallen to 25 cases per 100,000 residents. But as pressure mounts, the Los Angeles teachers’ union said the calls for reopening were “reckless.”
“As more infectious and fatal variants are spreading, the state claims it’s safe to reopen when infections are at 25 cases per 100,000,” said United Teachers Los Angeles President Cecily Myart-Cruz in a statement.
The union noted that the district overwhelming serves low-income families of color, and that Black, Latino and Pacific Islander residents are continuing to die at disproportionately higher rates, while getting vaccinated at disproportionally lower rates.
“Resuming in-person instruction when cases are so high, and without proper health and safety protocols, will result in a yo-yo effect of closures, upending the very educational stability that our students and communities deserve,” she said.