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Reopening California schools is an equity issue — and teachers must be vaccinated

If California wants equity to play a role in its vaccination strategy, we must vaccinate teachers as quickly as possible. So far, state leaders and the powerful unions that represent school employees have disagreed on that point.

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FEBRUARY 10, 2021 05:00 AM

Teachers and child care workers are eligible in the current phase of the state vaccination plan. But California’s vaccine rates have ranked among the nation’s lowest, and last month Gov. Gavin Newsom changed his directives to improve the pace. He added residents 65 and older to the current tiers. Understandably, seniors have been prioritized given their greater risk of dying from COVID-19.

Newsom is negotiating an agreement with state legislators to distribute $6.6 billion to fund school reopenings. It will include a prioritization framework to get teachers vaccinated. But on Tuesday, he again described vaccinations for teachers as a “very idealistic goal” that would prevent reopening before the end of the school year. In addition, unions dropped a new set of conditions last week, including vaccinations for every school employee. This makes it hard to envision a deal that could salvage this school year

There must be a path to compromise. Nowhere is inequity more pronounced in California than in public education. Prioritizing vaccinations for teachers so that we can get our children back into school is a vital equity issue. State officials, unions and school districts should be willing to meet halfway.

A Stanford University study estimates that the average student has lost at least one-third of a year’s learning in reading, and three-quarters of a year’s worth of math. The damage is even greater for minority children, and will worsen the longer this gridlock continues.

Safely reopening schools will also help the parents and guardians of the 6.1 million students in California who have been managing distance learning since March. In recent months, it’s been mothers who have suffered the greatest job losses, especially Black and Latina women.

Yet no matter how much we want to reopen schools, California has limited power to do so unless unions agree. Teachers are dying from COVID-19 in states that hastily reopened. Vaccinating California’s 300,000 K-12 educators should not be a deal-breaker.

But unions must acknowledge that well-designed mitigation measures can limit contact and protect classified staff, who work outside the classroom, until vaccines are more widely available. New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and comments from the agency’s director reveal that vaccines aren’t required if other protective measures are in place. A blanket demand for every person on a school campus to get vaccinated is unrealistic when other essential workers are still waiting for their turn.

Some counties in the Sacramento region are preparing to vaccinate educators, despite such limited supply. Placer County became the first in the region to allow teachers to sign up. Public health departments in Sacramento and Yolo counties last week announced teachers would be prioritized later this month, but returning to in-person instruction is not imminent.

“The progress on vaccinations does not necessarily mean in-school teaching will ramp up anytime soon for many local school districts,” The Bee’s Sawsan Morrar and Tony Bizjak reported. “The effort to vaccinate teachers and staff likely could take months.”

The window to strike a deal and get children back on campuses before the school year ends is rapidly closing. The initial deadline for Newsom’s original $2 billion plan to reopen schools was last week, but there was little support for funding incentives that ignored virus transmission rates. As frustrations boiled over, San Francisco sued its own school district to force open the doors.

Vaccinating with an equity lens means we must recognize students as central to this conversation. Any agreement to reopen schools must include a clear mandate to vaccinate teachers as soon as possible. In addition, unions must be willing to compromise and help get children back into classrooms.

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