Almost exactly a year after the United States’ first case of the novel coronavirus was detected in my home state, that is today’s big question. What group of people should be prioritized to receive COVID-19 vaccines after health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities?It is remarkable that we are even having this discussion now. We should all be tremendously grateful to the scientists and researchers who drew on decades of study and worked around the clock to develop these vaccines in record time, and those who volunteered to take part in vaccine trials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that people over age 75 and frontline essential workers be next in line. But that is a group of 49 million people. And supplies of the vaccine are limited. As a pediatrician, a mother and member of Congress, I would suggest that we prioritize one particular group of frontline workers: teachers.
Here’s why. Children need to be back in school safely as soon as possible. They learn better in school, and they develop socially and emotionally there. Many rely on school for nutrition and safety. And the divide has grown between students who were already thriving and have continued to thrive, and those who were already struggling and have fallen further behind. Resuming in-person instruction will help at-risk children catch up.
Working parents need schools to open as well. Think about all of the parents – disproportionately women – who left the workplace when schools shuttered last spring. Those families depend on the largest childcare provider in the nation – our public schools – for before and after-school care.
A large part of the reason our schools are closed is that right now, schools are a dangerous place for teachers. A quarter of teachers are at high risk because of age or pre-existing conditions. Many more live with a person at high risk for severe disease. Keeping them safe allows them to return to work. Children, fortunately, tend to have mild or no symptoms.
Children are at greater risk out of school than in school. We can keep them and their families safe through regular at-home testing to ensure that infected children stay home from school and don’t spread the disease to others who could then take it home to their own families. There are 3.7 million teachers in this country, a small slice of the 49 million currently slated to be in Phase 1B, making this feasible to do fairly quickly.
It is difficult to make these decisions. I know most of us, including my parents who already celebrated their 75th birthdays, are eager for our turn to get the vaccine, for the people we love to be protected and for a return to normalcy. Asking anyone to wait a little longer is hard. But the way we can help the most people right now is by prioritizing teachers and school staff for vaccines in January, and by continuing to distance, mask, and avoid indoor gatherings to protect ourselves and our communities in the meantime.