Is It Vaccines for All or No School?

Education

The Learning Curve: Is It Vaccines for All or No School?

Clearly, teachers have moved the goalposts for reopening. But the virus and the protections we have against it have been constantly changing too. 

Parents hold a protest in front of the Eugene Brucker Education Center demanding schools reopen. / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

In the summer and fall, I heard one point made over and over again: There are no risk-free options. 

“When people talk about a risk-free option [for reopening schools], there isn’t one,” said John Lee Evans, who was president of the San Diego Unified school board when he told me that back in July. 

In other words, if students stay at home, some will be more vulnerable and more hungry and more isolated. Damage will be done. But if teachers and students go back to school, the virus could spread and people could die. 

There are no risk-free options. 

But now, the California Teachers Association is asking for a risk-free option – for teachers, that is.

As part of its “pathway to schools reopening,” the state’s largest teacher’s union insists that all teachers be “provided the opportunity to be vaccinated before students return to campus.”

That is as risk-free for teachers as it can get. But it increases the risk for students – in Las Vegas, for example, youth suicides have gone up – who will need to wait for those vaccinations to happen. 

Teachers didn’t have the same message in October or November. Back then it was all about testing and PPE and ventilation. Once those things were in place, and community spread of the virus was in check, teachers would go back to school. 

Clearly, teachers have moved the goalpost. But in all fairness, the virus and the protections we have against it, have been constantly changing as well. 

“There is vast spread in the community right now. Teachers want to feel safe, and vaccines right now seem to be the best avenue to get to that point,” said Alan Underwood, a music teacher who sits on the executive board of the teacher’s union in Temecula Valley Unified School District. (Underwood also lives in City Heights.)

“In the fall, we had no idea how soon vaccines might arrive, because they weren’t even a reality then,” he said. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom is clearly frustrated with teachers, as was evident in a leaked video last week of him talking to school administrators

“If we wait for the perfect, we might as well just pack it up and just be honest with folks that we’re not going to open for in-person instruction this school year,” Newsom said, according to Politico. 

But, as Underwood sees it, Newsom is also part of the problem. As of right now, state guidance is incredibly clear that most schools cannot reopen if they are in the state’s purple tier, which is the most grave in terms of community spread. Most urban districts fall well within that tier, meaning they couldn’t open even if they wanted to based on the state’s rules. (Schools that opened while they were in the red tier can actually open in the purple tier. But none of the state’s largest districts opened during that time.)

One might argue that California’s strict rules about reopening don’t align with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent guidance that opening schools – with the right protective measures in place – is relatively safe. But if that’s the case, Newsom needs to change the rules to reflect the new guidance if he really wants to leverage teachers toward the classroom. 

The swagger of labor in California could be the main test of President Joe Biden’s promise to reopen schools in his first 100 days, Politico pointed out. 

Here’s an off-the-wall idea for Biden that could solve the problem for both sides: Allow mass production of the vaccine, by temporarily waiving companies’ intellectual property rights. 

The companies that developed the vaccines currently have a patent monopoly on them. That means no other companies can manufacture the vaccines. In the case of Moderna, that’s especially galling – because the American people actually paid for that company’s vaccine, as Dean Baker, an economist, noted on On The Media.  

Taxpayers forked over nearly $1 billion total for the development and testing of Moderna’s vaccine. And yet Moderna solely owns the right to produce it – meaning production is massively stifled. 

Rather than referring to Moderna or Pfizer’s vaccines, we should be calling them “the people’s vaccines,” as two doctors recently noted in The Nation. 

Barring this bold, but entirely reasonable, action out of Washington, it is important to remember how much children are suffering right now. 

Teachers want to be as protected as possible, which is how anyone would feel in their shoes. 

But the most vulnerable students don’t have political capital. And every moment wasted on changing the standards for reopening puts them further in jeopardy. 

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