MERIDEN, Connecticut – After telling educators they would be vaccinated soon, the Biden administration on Wednesday launched an aggressive campaign to build support for the reopening of schools, demonstrating unity with leaders of teachers’ unions and highlighting measures to retain students. and staff safe from the coronavirus.
A day after President Biden announced a new federal program to give teachers across the country access to at least a first dose of the vaccine by the end of March, the administration sought to position itself as determined to open schools as soon as possible while addressing concerns. teachers that their fears were ignored.
To carry the message, the White House sent First Lady Jill Biden and newly confirmed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on a trip to Connecticut and Pennsylvania to stress that teachers should no longer be afraid to return without classroom protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said teachers did not need to be vaccinated for schools to reopen safely.
Getting gunshots in the arms of educators and school staff would be his “top priority” as education secretary, said Dr Cardona in Connecticut, where he and the first lady were joined. by Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers.
“We need to continue to reopen American schools for in-person learning as quickly and as safely as possible,” Dr. Cardona said during a stop at a school district in Meriden, his hometown. “The president recognizes this, which is why he took bold steps yesterday to get teachers and school staff immunized quickly.”
But it is not known how quickly educators will be able to get vaccinated. According to a New York Times database, at least 38 states and the District of Columbia already vaccinate school employees to some extent. But vaccine shortages continue to slow progress in immunizing eligible people.
On Tuesday, the White House coronavirus response team held a call with governors and told them not to expect an additional vaccine allocation until later in the spring. An additional boost from the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they were told, wouldn’t arrive until the first week of April.
Participants on the call were confused later that day when Mr Biden announced that teachers would be given priority for the vaccine, even if the amount of vaccine available would not be increased, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
“We were on the phone with the Biden administration for an hour yesterday, and that didn’t happen at all,” Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, told reporters Wednesday at a press conference.
The president’s decision to vaccinate teachers was also unexpected news for some health officials. A note that circulated among some at the CDC on Wednesday shared advice on vaccinating teachers, but Mr Biden’s order was called a surprise. “We learned when you talked about the executive order presented by President Biden yesterday,” read the note, which was obtained by The New York Times and sent to officials in several states. “Pharmacies will be asked to update the eligibility of this population; there is no choice.
Caught between the priorities of parents, teacher unions and Americans who desperately need the vaccine, White House officials have welcomed Dr Cardona’s confirmation with a full list of tasks for him. As Connecticut’s education commissioner, he successfully reopened most of the state’s schools amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The White House now expects Dr Cardona to push for nationwide reopenings, even as teachers’ unions across the country worry about back-to-class safety and questions arise regarding conflicts with existing health guidelines that immunizations should only be necessary for teachers to resume in-person learning.
White House officials said Mr Biden’s decision to increase educators’ vaccinations was based on the president’s view that teachers are essential workers who are essential in bringing the country back to normal. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said vaccinating teachers was “not a prerequisite,” but Mr Biden believed they should be “a priority.”
Ms Psaki defended the decision to prioritize teachers against some critics who said it undermined efforts to distribute the vaccine more equitably to minority communities.
“The program goes beyond teachers and includes bus drivers, janitors, babysitters – an incredibly diverse workforce,” she said. “Second, getting kids back to school is one of the most equitable steps we can take, because what we’ve seen statistically is that black and Latino students experience disproportionate learning loss.”
On Tuesday, after Biden announced his plan, Washington state added licensed educators and educators to its priority tier “immediately,” accelerating its plan by a few weeks.
The purpose of the first lady’s trip on Wednesday, the White House said, was for Dr Biden, an English professor with a doctorate in educational leadership, and Dr Cardona to review security measures and mitigation that schools have no one learning.
Still, the political dynamics of the trip were on display: the presidents of two of the country’s largest teachers’ unions, whose members helped get Mr Biden elected and who protested in person, fearing the reopening could happen. safely, joined Dr. Biden for the tours.
After Ms. Weingarten met Dr. Biden in Connecticut, Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, or NEA, met her in Pennsylvania. Dr Biden is a longtime member of the association.
The unions have provided comments to the White House and the CDC, including detailing the realities facing their members – including those who have been teaching in buildings since the start of the school year.
The most pressing concern the administration heard from teachers, several officials said, was that teachers would not be prioritized in the immunization process.
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“Since the vaccines were launched, the NEA and educators across the country have advocated for educators to prioritize the safety of students, educators and families,” Ms. Pringle said in a statement. “President Biden has heard us – and we applaud his work.”
Ms Weingarten, who heads the country’s second-largest teachers’ union and has supported the CDC’s recent position on teacher vaccination, in particular, is said to have a direct line with the president’s inner circle. She praised Mr Biden’s announcement, saying that with the new federal guidelines and the vaccination campaign, her union was “confident that in the weeks and months to come, we can be back in the classrooms. “.
Yet while some local teachers’ unions say vaccinations are sufficient for safe in-person learning, others are calling for districts to improve ventilation and ensure social distancing of at least six feet – two steps which have been shown to reduce the spread of the disease. virus. CDC guidelines emphasize a distance of only six feet when the prevalence of the virus is high, and only briefly noted the need for ventilation. Some union members also insisted that schools not open until infection rates in their communities are very low.
For Caitlin Hickey, a preschool teacher in New York City, the opportunity to get the vaccine in January through her local union was a relief. Her father died of Covid-19 last April, and her mother, who lives with her, has an underlying health problem and she was afraid to bring the virus home. She teaches at a distance because her students’ families have chosen virtual learning, but she is in a building with other children and adults.
“I was dying to get the shot,” Ms. Hickey said. “It was a weight on my shoulders. This is the only way for us to get back to some kind of normalcy. The pandemic will not go away on its own. “
Epidemiological models have shown that vaccinating teachers can significantly reduce infections in schools. “This should be a top priority,” said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Still, requiring teachers to be vaccinated could significantly slow the pace of reopening schools, he and other experts have acknowledged.
In guidelines released last month, the CDC called for elementary and secondary schools to be reopened as soon as possible and offered a step-by-step plan to get students back into classrooms. Although the agency recommended prioritizing teachers, it said vaccination should “nevertheless not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”
Days later, the CDC released a study which concluded that “educators could play a central role in school transmission” and that “school mitigation measures and educators’ Covid-19 vaccination are an essential part of preventing transmission in schools. ”
Many local teachers’ unions remain adamantly opposed to resuming in-person learning now, saying school districts lack the resources or the will to follow CDC guidelines on coronavirus safety.
Without vaccination, unions say, adults in school would remain vulnerable to serious illness or death from Covid-19 because children, although much less prone to the disease, can nonetheless easily be carriers of the virus. Studies suggest that children under 10 transmit the virus about half as effectively as adults, but older children can look a lot like adults.
Katie rogers reported by Meriden, and Erica L. Green from Washington. Apoorva Mandavilli contribution to New York reporting.