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Teachers, cafeteria workers and school bus drivers should be next in line for the Covid vaccine

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Technicians measure doses of the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19 in Arlington, Virginia. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

When Sandra Lindsay, director of critical care nursing at a Long Island hospital, received the first vaccine for Covid-19 approved by the FDA for emergency use, the shot to her arm on Dec. 14 not only boosted her immunity for the virus, it lifted our collective hopes that this tragic period in world history would soon pass. To date, the coronavirus has killed approximately 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 300,000 people in the U.S., a number increasing rapidly and tragically as colder weather drives us indoors.

A post-Covid, vaccinated world is on the horizon, and most of us can’t wait to receive the treatment. Healthcare workers and people in facilities for the elderly are understandably first in line: They are at highest risk of exposure and death. But after the most vulnerable people get the vaccines, we should vaccinate teachers.

Choosing to vaccinate teachers — and all those who are needed to keep schools running, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and administrators — will allow facilities to reopen, will be better for student learning and development, good for parents’ sanity and great for business as we try to restart the economy.

The question of who should receive the vaccine first is already becoming contentious. The CDC’s playbook for phased allocation of the Covid-19 vaccines places healthcare practitioners and individuals living in long-term care facilities at the front of the line. Next come essential workers, people with underlying medical conditions that place them at high risk and adults over 65. 

After these phases are complete, school workers should be next.

Since states and municipalities started implementing social distancing mandates, people have pitted the need for health against the need to kick-start the economy as an either/or scenario. Most of us recognize the connection between schools and the workforce. As a working parent of a 10-year-old, I certainly welcome more space at our kitchen/conference/homework table. The operative question is how can we return students to the schoolhouse safely to help restart other aspects of the economy. By failing to pass legislation that would have given states and districts the funding for PPEs and resources to socially distance students, federal legislators avoided the question of how. The rise of the vaccine will break us free from pitting health against the economy. Prioritizing schools recognizes the close connection between keeping schools open and getting people back to work.

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Many parents who send their children to public schools are essential workers. Prioritizing schools for vaccinations would give parents who have to work some backup. Parents need safe and healthy places to send their children while they work, whether they work in a hospital, a grocery store or at home. (Opening schools would also free up broadband, computer hardware and time for parents who have had to set up home offices next to their children’s remote learning stations.)

It’s important to recall that before the pandemic, most discussions of economic growth attributed to schools focused on the productivity generated by the skills students gained (or didn’t) from receiving an education. One of the seminal articles on the subject, produced in 2007 by Columbia University economist Harry Levin and his colleagues, found unequivocally that the financial benefits of a high school degree outweighs the costs society incurs to produce graduates. (The Hechinger Report is an independent news outlet based at Columbia University’s Teachers College.) Levin determined that “the net economic benefit to the public is $127,000 per student, 2.5 times greater than the costs.” Accordingly, getting kids back to school will accelerate economic growth in the short- and long-term.

Understanding the full economic impact of schools, and why getting them open as soon as possible is so critical, also requires us to view schools as places of industry. Schools don’t just produce graduates who earn money: In many places, the education system is the largest employer, whose workers help support the communities in which they live.

Schools also provide critical services for families and communities, a role that public health officials can leverage to distribute the vaccine. Schools are located in areas that are generally accessible to the public. State educational systems are highly organized around to geography and socioeconomic status. States could make sure to vaccinate teachers in low-income school districts first, for example, so that communities hardest hit during the pandemic are prioritized.

When it comes to distribution of the vaccine, a laissez-faire approach won’t privilege the right people. We need to prioritize vaccinations not only for the people and systems that will keep the most people alive but those that will speed up recovery from this pandemic: schools.

This story about vaccinating teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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