Coronavirus Chronicles

Washington Must Prioritize Teachers in Vaccine Distribution Plan

Otherwise, Seattle's latest extension of remote learning won't be the last.

By Benjamin Cassidy October 26, 2020

Just before happy hour on Friday, a piece of depressing, if not surprising, news hit Twitter: Seattle Public Schools announced an extension of remote learning until January 28. Some students enrolled in special education services will continue to receive in-person instruction, but everyone else will remain couch-bound for the rest of the semester due to a local rise in Covid-19 cases.

It may be even longer before schools open their doors to all. Seattle Public Schools superintendent Denise Juneau says there’s “no guarantee” that in-person instruction will return next semester. “There are many factors that need to be considered, as we closely monitor King County COVID-19 transmission rates as well as disproportionate impacts on communities of color,” Juneau wrote in a letter.

The state has recommended districts remain in distance learning if their local tallies exceed 75 per 100,000 residents over a two-week span. King County has lingered above that mark for most of October, but the area did see the disease dwindle to levels acceptable for elementary school reopenings throughout September. Seattle’s numbers were even better.

Which makes it feel like the city missed an opportunity to squeeze in a month or so of in-person learning before the inevitable drop in temperatures and rise in coronavirus. Our normal mode of education offers a social and economic lifeline for many students, not just a means to study. And some other cities have at least attempted to reopen their schools.

But coronavirus has already upended some of those efforts, and research into child-to-adult transmission remains scant, though initially promising. We simply don’t know yet how safe it would be to expose older instructors to classrooms full of young people. Given that uncertainty, Seattle’s in-person pushback seems wise. It also resembles recent decisions in Portland and San Francisco.

What will change between now and January 28 to bring us closer to school reopenings? A different announcement last week provided a potential hint. On Wednesday, Washington’s Department of Health submitted an “Interim Covid-19 Vaccination Plan” to the CDC. While DOH acting assistant secretary Michele Roberts stressed that the plan is merely a “first version,” the “living document" lays out a phased approach to distributing a vaccine (or multiple vaccines) whenever it arrives.

Initially, the state won’t have enough doses to vaccinate everyone. As expected, health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents, and people with underlying medical conditions will likely be the first to receive the vaccine when it arrives. Essential workers are also noted as a “possible” Phase 1 group.

"Essential worker" is hardly a clear-cut term, though. While the Trump administration has deemed them essential, teachers weren’t part of Washington’s early list of essential workers.

With the approval of a vaccine perhaps imminent, the state should revisit that choice, or at least prioritize teachers and other school staff in the distribution line before certain essential workers. Vaccinating school employees as soon as possible would not only expedite school reopenings but also relieve some of the burden on parents who can't stay home with their children. In essence, our teachers' shots wouldn't just boost their own immune systems; they'd help rehabilitate the social and economic vitality of our city.

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