Full vaccination of staff should be a prerequisite for going back to schools

February 11, 2021 12:01 am

First grade teacher Yolanda Vasquez stands in protest along with other teachers and counselors in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. Teachers and administrators from Hillsborough County Schools rallied against the reopening of schools due to health and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Nearly everyone wants schoolchildren back in classrooms around the commonwealth as soon as possible, since they’ve coped with roughly a year of the pandemic and less-than-perfect teaching substitutes.

Note my use of the word, “nearly.” More on that later.

Gov. Ralph Northam wants a return to in-person studies, though he has only the bully pulpit to exhort school divisions to resume such learning by March 15. Local school boards ultimately make the decision about reopening for in-school teaching.

The lack of such learning “is having a real and significant impact on (students’) educational and social development,” the guv said in a letter to superintendents and school boards. There’s no argument about that.

Parents want it. They’re not trained to be long-term teachers — heck, they may know less than their children in some subjects. (Secant? 100 Years War? “The Metamorphosis?” Yikes.) The extra burden of teaching strains their ability to focus on their jobs, too — if parents have been lucky enough to keep one during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Students want to go back. They’re going stir-crazy at home and not socializing with peers as they used to.

More importantly, child psychiatrists fear the pandemic has increased the risk of suicides by children. Between April and October 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, hospital emergency departments saw a rise in the share of total visits that were from children with mental health needs. Pediatricians in Virginia reported similar problems.

Meanwhile the CDC, in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said that as schools reopened for in-person instruction, “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.”

The urgency to reopen is understandable. Educators in the commonwealth, though, are saying “Wait a minute.” They’re justified in asking state and local officials to ensure the building environments are safe before they put their own lives at risk, or the lives of their students.

Many educators still haven’t received vaccines. More than 100,000 of the state’s 206,500-plus public school personnel — about half the total — have gotten the first dose, Alena Yarmosky, a gubernatorial spokeswoman, told me Wednesday by email.

The state’s confusing rollout and availability of doses are factors in the delay.

Teachers, custodians and other school employees will be the ones coming into contact with children who are possibly asymptomatic. These workers will bear the brunt of any negative effects.

The CDC notes children are at risk of getting COVID-19 complications, but they’re “less likely to develop severe illness compared with adults.” Yet they can spread the virus to others.

That’s a serious fear for teachers and school staff with underlying medical conditions. They’re also worried about returning to in-school instruction if they live with someone — a spouse, children, elderly relatives — who have significant health problems including heart disease, cancer or respiratory illnesses.

The Virginia Education Association represents more than 40,000 teachers and school support professionals. VEA President James J. Fedderman, in response to Northam’s request last week, said the best way to get back to in-school instruction isn’t by setting an arbitrary date.

“Instead, we must keep our focus on ensuring that all school staff members have the opportunity to be vaccinated,” Fedderman said, “and that all necessary safety precautions and mitigation measures are in place, along with the resources to sustain them.”

Some local divisions are balking at returning to in-person teaching so soon, as well. On Tuesday, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, Richmond school officials said buildings aren’t clean or safe enough to prevent COVID-19, and not enough teachers and other employees have been vaccinated.

“It is literally not possible to do the air-quality enhancements that we would like to do by March 15,” Superintendent Jason Kamras told the School Board.

The VEA also cited a poll released this month showing fears by Virginians about reopening K-12 schools. The survey by the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University of 1,039 residents found 45 percent said schools are reopening too quickly, 25 percent too slowly, and 30 percent said the pace is about right.

That suggests there might not be a mandate for Northam’s proposal. Return children to the buildings, but do so when it’s safe.

It’s not always possible to say someone in the schools contracted COVID-19 because of their time there. The VEA told me about several coronavirus-related deaths of members over the past year, including custodians in Prince William County and Alexandria; a bus driver-mechanic in Greensville; a teacher in Mecklenburg; and six school employees in Virginia Beach.

Anecdotally, you hear about other cases of teachers who died around the country, or incidents where those who survived now have lingering ailments. But authorities can’t always pinpoint how teachers caught the virus.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, reported this week that a metro Atlanta teacher continues to struggle after he likely was infected with COVID-19. Ryan Proffitt now has heart irregularities, rashes and muscle pain.

At the very least, in the face of a deadly virus, Virginia officials should ensure our educators and other school staff are vaccinated before they teach in person.

That’s a minor — and humane — prerequisite.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]