Editorial: Give teachers a cut in line for covid vaccine

It’s worth considering to get kids back in classrooms, but schools can work to open safely for all.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s something we all learn from an early age in the classroom, a lesson that instructs on fairness and respect for the rules: No cuts in line.

That works for kids before recess and for the rest of us at movie theaters — remember them — but it’s more complicated when we’re dealing with a matter of life and death and a return to the most important aspects of our daily lives in determining the line-up for covid-19 vaccinations, especially when depending on a limited supply of vaccine.

To vaccinate every Washington state resident, we will need enough for 7.6 million people, or more than 15 million doses for the two-shot vaccines now available through Pfizer and Moderna. Currently, Washington state is receiving about 116,000 doses a week.

At that supply rate it could take more than a year to vaccinate everyone. Vaccine makers say they are ramping up supply, and the Biden administration has committed to a goal of getting a million shots in a million arms each day for the first 100 days of his term; but vaccinating 80 percent to 90 percent of the U.S. population — the level recommended to reach “herd immunity” from the coronavirus — will take time, effort and some hard choices.

Determining our place in line, then, involves a complex trade-off of risks and benefits to individuals and — to put it bluntly — the roles and importance of those in our communities.

The choices may not be as stark as those in the ethical dilemma of “lifeboat,” but close enough.

Washington state, as with most states following guidelines from medical ethicists and the federal government, has given first priority for the vaccine to health care workers, first responders and residents of long-term care facilities. Little to argue there, or with the next in line in the state’s phases for vaccination: those 65 and older or 50 and older in multi-generational households.

It’s with the next three tiers of the B phase, with vaccinations anticipated between spring and summer, that the order for the line is being questioned, specifically for teachers and staff in public and private schools. Since last July, groups, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have stressed the necessity of returning students to classrooms as soon as possible, not just for academic reasons but for students’ emotional, social, nutritional and health needs. There are legitimate fears that kids are falling behind and that inequities are growing for some households where kids don’t have the same access to technology or where working parents have more difficulty shepherding their kids’ remote learning.

Recognizing that, some school superintendents have called on Gov. Jay Inslee to move teachers and other school staff higher on the schedule so that educators can return to schools with confidence regarding their safety. That argument worked for Oregon’s Gov. Kate Brown, who has moved teachers and school staff up, essentially putting them alongside if not ahead of some of those in the 65-and-older tier.

Inslee, instead, is sticking to plans set by his office and the state Department of Health, last week saying that asking teachers to return to the classroom now — without certainty of vaccinations until late spring or summer — “isn’t asking more than we’ve asked of our grocery clerks.” Allowing teachers to cut in line, Inslee holds, means delaying vaccination of older residents, putting them at greater risk for serious illness and death.

Washington state’s vaccination phases remain unchanged, but there are now plans in place to expedite vaccine distribution for teachers, as announced Friday by state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal. In a joint online news conference, he and Kaiser Permanente President Susan Mullaney announced plans to speed vaccine delivery to school staff, using Kaiser Permanente facilities in the Puget Sound region and Spokane area and arranging with school districts elsewhere for vaccinations. Reykdal also encouraged those educators who currently qualify for vaccination not to wait.

There’s a case to be made that Washington could follow Oregon’s path. With about 150,000 teachers and other school employees in the state, allowing them a separate tier could mean only a couple weeks’ delay in the vaccination of others in the B1 tier.

Reykdal, who is among those who initially called on Inslee to consider moving teachers ahead in line, said he respects the governor’s decision and believes that school districts can continue plans to return students to classrooms soon using the protocols developed last year to protect the health of school staff, students and their families, including use of masks and other precautions. Vaccination, Reykdal said, while an important backstop, isn’t the only protection available.

The news of the day regarding COVID-19 seems to flip-flop between disheartening and encouraging: New variants of the virus threaten a quicker spread of the disease; but at the same time metrics have improved enough for the state’s health officials to allow several counties to begin easing restrictions.

Another bit of encouraging news was a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found scant transmission of the coronavirus in school settings, especially when masks and other social distancing practices are used, protocols already set out by state health and education agencies in encouraging Washington schools to resume classroom instruction.

The CDC study, following 17 schools in Wisconsin, found only seven cases out of 191 covid-19 infections that were linked to in-school transmission. Even in areas with high rates of transmission, the CDC said, there was no evidence that in-school attendance would transmit the virus at rates higher than in the general community.

The option of an earlier vaccination tier for teachers should still be considered, but the news regarding the CDC study and the partnership between Kaiser Permanente and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction should provide enough confidence among school officials, teachers, their unions and the families of students that schools can begin steps to reopening soon, starting with K-5 students, expansion of hybrid classes and on toward a full return to the classroom.

There are about four months remaining in the school year. There’s a lot of learning that could happen in what remains.

This editorial was produced by The Daily Herald (Everett) Editorial Board. The Herald is a sister newspaper of the Auburn Reporter.