by Leo Casey
What needs to be negotiated for U.S. K-12 schools to be reopened safely?
Quite a bit.
That statement may seem counterintuitive. We are now witnessing a potential unraveling of the hard-won progress in beating back the COVID-19 pandemic — and it is largely because of the failure of many of our fellow citizens to be vaccinated. Our patience is exhausted. Understandably, there is growing sentiment to simply mandate vaccines. For the frustrated, mandates — in schools and elsewhere — seem like an obvious step that would address the current crisis and put us back on track to controlling the pandemic. What is left to negotiate?
Yet the challenges are more complex. Yes, mass vaccination — over 90 percent of the population, such as countries like Iceland are well on their way to achieving — is an indispensable front in winning the fight against the COVID pandemic. Mandates can play an important role in getting to mass vaccination, and so they can and should be employed, particularly in healthcare, public safety, public education, mass transportation and other critical services. But it will require more than mandates to get us where we need to be with mass vaccination, and the mass vaccination that is now within our reach will not, by itself, be sufficient for schools to reopen safely this fall.
Let’s start with why mass vaccination is a positive, but not sufficient, condition for the safe reopening of schools. In fact, educators are already vaccinated at very close to the rates we need for the general population: both the AFT and the National Education Association calculate that somewhere in the vicinity of 90 percent of their K-12 educator members are vaccinated. This achievement comes in part because of the prodigious work of teacher unions to get their members vaccinated. A vaccination mandate for educators could improve that rate, and so is worth doing, but we need to be clear that it will be improvement largely at the margins: the numbers of unvaccinated educators are relatively small, and they include people who have genuine medical reasons and sincere religious beliefs for not being vaccinated and people who will leave teaching rather than be vaccinated. (Part of what must be negotiated is the procedures for identifying authentic medical and religious exemptions.)
More importantly, the most critical challenge of a safe reopening of schools is not the status of educators, with their high rates of vaccination, but that of students. In pre-K through 7th grade, none of the students will be vaccinated this fall, and in the higher grades, we have yet to reach a 50 percent vaccination threshold. So, vaccination will provide essential protection to the adult educator in the classroom, but that protection will be missing for the 15 to 30 students in the class who are unvaccinated. While as a rule the severity of the COVID disease declines with age, the ability to transmit the virus does not. If students communicate the virus to each other in the classroom — and here we must take into account the much greater transmissibility of the now dominant Delta variant — they will become vectors for the spread of the COVID virus to their families and to the community at large. And that would be very bad news for containing the pandemic.
Schools may be able to require vaccinations for students down the road, much as we currently require vaccinations for measles and mumps, but that is just not within our reach now — and the danger of a resurgence of the pandemic is now. So, the safe reopening of schools will depend not just on the vaccination of educators, but on employing mitigation strategies that reduce and abate the potential for transmission among students — the use of masks, physical distancing, appropriate ventilation, and regular and full cleaning of classrooms. The critical battle in the safe reopening of schools is around employing these mitigation strategies, especially universal masking. We must be able to turn back the efforts of elected officials like Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, who is doing everything in his power to try to undermine universal masking in Florida’s schools, even as his state leads the nation in the resurgence of the pandemic with its highest daily number of new COVID cases — including cases among children — since the start of the pandemic. (It is telling that the reflexively anti-union commentators who were quick to attack teacher unions for saying that negotiations over these matters are necessary, like New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, have managed to overlook DeSantis’ attacks on mask mandates.)
The experience of teachers and their unions throughout the last year and a half is that left to their own predilections, too many school districts and local and state governments will not employ these mitigation strategies in the comprehensive ways that are required. The strategies can be costly (retrofitting poorly maintained school buildings with appropriate ventilation) and logistically difficult (finding space for smaller classes that allow for physical distancing). Even the easiest of these strategies to implement — universal masking — can become a subject of contention in an era where science and public health have been under attack by public figures like DeSantis. Moreover, the challenges to implementing these mitigation strategies are greater in schools that serve working-class and poor communities and communities of color, as their buildings are often aged and in poor repair and their class sizes are larger. Taking on the necessary work of mitigation strategies in schools is not for the faint-hearted.
Add to this on-the-ground reality a likely scenario for how vaccine mandates would roll out. There will certainly be legal challenges, and it is probable that courts will hold the mandates in abeyance while the issue is adjudicated. It is by no means certain that this Supreme Court would rule in favor of mandates, despite clear precedents for them. As a consequence, vaccine mandates will not be immediate fixes, but — assuming the Supreme Court does not strike them down — more medium- and long-range tools in the pandemic. It is essential that other means of achieving mass vaccination — education campaigns, incentive programs and requirements of weekly and even twice weekly COVID testing of the unvaccinated working in critical services such as education — not be abandoned in the name of pursuing mandates, but instead intensified.
In sum, vaccination mandates are not a “magic bullet” in the fight against COVID but one of many tools that need to be employed. We need all the tools we can muster in this battle, so mandates should be supported, but we also need to be clear about all that is needed to safely reopen schools and contain the pandemic. The common good of achieving both of these objectives is best met when teachers and their unions have a voice in the pandemic-related policies and practices of their schools, and when local school districts are required to negotiate these matters with them.
Leo Casey is the former director of the Albert Shanker Institute and is currently assistant to the president of the AFT.
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