Some of the questions now facing our state are complicated, thorny — even painful.
Others are easy enough. For example, should Texas teachers be eligible for the COVID vaccine?
“Erica, honestly, I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” said state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat from San Antonio who serves on the House Committee on Public Education.
In his view, the question is a no-brainer. Under state guidelines, educators haven’t been eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by virtue of their occupation, but that is strange. For one thing, children aren’t eligible for the vaccine, meaning adults who work with children can’t count on some degree of incidental protection as the vaccine rollout picks up steam.
“The rest of us, theoretically, over time will spend more and more time with a growing number of people who are vaccinated,” Bernal said. “You’re forcing teachers to spend time with groups of people who aren’t vaccinated.”
“I don’t understand the logic, maybe because there isn’t any,” he added, speaking prior to President Joe Biden’s announcement of a policy Tuesday aimed at getting more vaccines to teachers.
Houston ISD Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca was similarly nonplussed when I talked to her on Tuesday. In a number of states, she noted, educators were treated as essential workers and made eligible for the vaccine in the rollout’s early phases.
“I just don’t know why teachers weren’t counted here as essential workers,” she told me.
A year ago, when the first cases of COVID-19 were being diagnosed in the United States, schoolchildren in Texas and across the country were abruptly switched to remote learning to protect them from the deadly virus. State officials aggressively pushed to reopen classrooms and offer in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year, threatening to withhold state funding for districts that didn’t comply.
Although millions of parents have opted to enroll their children in remote learning this year, most educators have been back in the classroom since August, where their responsibilities now include enforcing district guidelines about masks and social distancing as well as teaching students via Zoom and in person simultaneously.
That’s been an outstanding effort on their part. And it hasn’t been risk-free. As of last week, according to the Department of State Health Services, there had been 119,810 positive student cases of COVID-19 in Texas public schools since the year began, and 64,562 positive cases among school staff. The Houston Chronicle reported in January that it had identified nearly 40 school employees in Texas whose deaths had been linked to COVID-19. The deceased — administrators, teachers, custodians, bus drivers, paraprofessionals — ranged in age from 35 to 74 and included Houston ISD chemistry teacher Erick Ortiz, 52.
Relatively few of the positive cases tracked by state officials, according to health experts, can be pinned to in-school transmission. Still, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines issued last month suggest that men and women who work in schools be prioritized for the vaccine at a relatively early stage of the rollout. (“Teachers and school staff hold jobs critical to the continued functioning of society and are at potential occupational risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2,” they note.)
In most states, that was already the case. As of March 1, according to Education Week, more than 30 states had already moved to extend the vaccine to all teachers.
Other states were likely to do the same, as they acquired greater supplies of the vaccine. On Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, announced that K-12 teachers over age 50 will be eligible for the vaccine, starting this week.
And yet Texas is lagging on this front, as on others. Nor can educators expect any clarity from Gov. Greg Abbott, who on Tuesday lifted the statewide mask mandate covering businesses and public areas and opened “EVERYTHING,” as he put it in a follow-up tweet.
In the speech, which alarmed public health experts who say a resurgence of the virus with new variants remains possible, the governor touted the state’s progress in vaccinations to date and promised that it will continue apace. More than 43,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Texas since the start of the pandemic.
“In fact — get this — the vaccine supply is increasing so rapidly, Texas will soon expand the categories of people available to get them,” Abbott said, without specifying which categories of people he’s considering in this context, or when they might be eligible.
The good news is that Texas will be getting more supplies of vaccine in the coming months. But Abbott’s move has the potential to put teachers at greater risk, especially if mask restrictions are lifted in schools. The Houston and Fort Bend school districts said Tuesday they would continue to require masks and face coverings at all district facilities, but other area districts were awaiting guidance from the Texas Education Agency.
Biden on Tuesday directed all states to prioritize teachers and school staffers for the vaccines using the federal pharmacy program. His order followed an announcement that the United States should have enough doses of the vaccine for every adult in the country by the end of May. He said his goal was to provide a first shot to all educators by the end of March.
That’s an encouraging development. The men and women who work in Texas public schools really shouldn’t have to wait until summer break to be afforded the protection conferred by these vaccines. They’ve stepped up, under difficult and nerve-wracking circumstances, to tackle work that is surely essential.
“They should be treated as priorities,” Flynn Vilaseca said, “because education is a priority.”