Teachers say they would like to be prioritized for COVID vaccine for the sake of reopening schools

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DENVER — Last month, a respiratory therapist became the first person in Colorado to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the state. The shot served as an important mile marker in the fight against a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 Coloradans.

Phase one if the vaccine rollout in Colorado includes frontline workers, long-term care facilities, public health professionals and more. Roughly 21 million people are included in that pool nationwide.

Last week, Governor Jared Polis announced he was modifying the priority list to include essential workers and educators in phase 1B of the vaccine rollout to more closely follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Essential workers are included in this vaccine pool as well as people 70 and older, police officer, EMS workers, firefighters, lawmakers, frontline journalists and more. Educators were also placed in this higher priority list. Roughly 1.2 million are included in that new priority listing.

That phase is expected to roll out in coming weeks as more vaccine doses become available. Gov. Polis said in a press conference Wednesday he expects it to take four to five weeks for the 70 and older group to be vaccinated before moving on.

Denver7 took a 360 look at placing teachers on the priority list for the COVID vaccine.

Health and Safety

The 2020 academic year has been difficult for school districts. Transitioning between in-person and remote learning has added stressors to students, staff and the district as a whole.

“It’s been a lot of pressure for the district,” said Christophe Febvre, the president of the Poudre School District board of education.

The year has also been a learning experience. Districts like Poudre have had to change their plans multiple times to adapt to challenges the pandemic has created.

Now, schools are trying to come up with a plan to reopen in the new year with even more safety precautions in place. Some educations groups believe vaccines could go a long way in helping schools to reopen.

The Poudre School District’s board of education recently passed a resolution calling for educators and school staff to be prioritized for the COVID vaccine.

“Clearly we don’t see them as high of a priority as the frontline workers in the health care industry, but if you go after that, to me it’s right after that,” Febvre said.

The call for educators and school staff to be placed high on the priority list is something the Colorado Association of School Boards agrees with.

Cheri Wrench, the group’s executive director, is happy that the governor has given preference to educators along with other essential worker.

“It’s really important to prioritize educators to be able to help keep our schools in-person learning,” Wrench said.

Because phase 1B includes more than one million people, however, it could take a while for educators to get vaccinated.

“Everyone who has an impact in the direct instruction of kiddos really has the need to have access to the vaccine,” Wrench said.

Gov. Jared Polis has not indicated whether he is planning on further prioritizing the list.

The Economics of Education

For Mike Johnston, the CEO of Gary Community Investments, getting students back into the classroom is as important for the state’s economy as it is for education.

“Re-opening schools is the single most important catalyst for the economy because it helps parents get back to work,” Johnston said.

Along with the pandemic affecting the students’ development, Johnston says keeping keeps out of school has affected the productivity of parents.

“They don’t have another caregiver to manage their kids while they’re at work, which means they are trying to do both,” Johnston said. “It is much harder for us to keep our family moving and keep our jobs going and keep our kids happy when we are the only outlet they have.”

In an effort to help schools reopen safely, Gary Community Investments has partnered with Metro Denver school districts to provide testing for teachers and students through COVIDCheck Colorado.

The testing will be available for free to help students and staff test out of quarantine. The tests will go along with regular disinfecting, social distancing, masks and other safety protocols.

“I think educators are core providers a public service to critical institutions in our state right now in the same way that nurses are, in the same way that police are, in the same way that firefighters are,” he said.

A Different Opinion

Others disagree with the idea of bumping educators higher up on the vaccine list.

Raymond Domanico is a senior fellow and the director of educational policy at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Domanico recently wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post arguing that teachers do not need to be put higher on the priority list.

The op-ed was written in response to a speech by President-elect Joe Biden about his priorities for his first 100 days in office. Biden called for educators to be vaccinated as soon as possible on a national level.

Domanico disagrees with the need for a national prioritization since COVID conditions vary greatly from state to state and even city to city.

“There are many, many working men and women in the country who are suffering and whose needs need to be considered,” Domanico said.

While there are still many unknowns about COVID-19, research has suggested that elementary and middle schools have not been a major source of transmission and many areas have proven that they can resume in-person instruction safely.

Because of this, Domanico doesn’t think educators need to be particularly prioritized above others.

“I don’t know that teachers should be automatically placed at the head of the line more so than a person who drives a bus or who makes the train run on time or who is working in a food processing plant,” Domanico said.

He’s also not sure that vaccinating teachers will guarantee that in-person instruction will resume since many districts are tying their reopening to community transmission rates.

A Doctor’s Take

Even without vaccinating teachers, Dr. Jessica Cataldi believes, depending on the community spread and safety precautions in place, there is a safe way to reopen schools.

Masks, testing and good cleaning practices can go a long way to keeping students and staff safe.

“Thankfully kids are less likely to become very sick with COVID the way the adults are, and kids are slightly less likely to spread COVID to other people,” Dr. Cataldi said.

That’s not the case for teenagers in high school. Research has shown teens can spread COVID just as easily as adults, so the way high schools are handled is different.

When the level of COVID in the community is high though, the data has shown an inevitable increase in spread within schools.

For the sake of the students’ emotional and mental development, Dr. Cataldi would like to see in-person instruction resume as soon as possible so she believes educators should be considered essential workers and prioritized for vaccine distribution.

However, with trials still ongoing for how the vaccine affects children as young as 12, Dr. Cataldi says it will still be many, many months before kids are able to be vaccinated. Others who are immune compromised will also not be able to receive the vaccine.

Because of that, even if educators are prioritized and, eventually, vaccinated, schools will not be able to automatically return to normal.

“I think the vaccine should be viewed as a bonus and an extra something that we can add on top of those strategies,” she said. “It’s still going to have to go along with all of those other layers of washing your hands and having kids and teachers still wear masks and adjusting schedules and classrooms and all those other things.”

Phase 1B Priorities

Already nearly 100,000 Coloradans have received the first shot for the COVID-19 vaccine. In some areas, people 70 and up are already starting to receive the vaccine as well.

Colorado is working with the federal government to bring in as many doses as possible as quickly as possible, but the production and distribution will take time.

It will be up to the state to determine who should be first in line to receive the vaccines and whether educators should be further prioritized.

Editor’s Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.