State leaders around the U.S. are increasingly pushing for schools to reopen this winter – pressuring them, even – as teachers begin to gain access to the vaccine against the raging pandemic.
Ohio’s governor offered to give vaccinations to teachers at the start of February, provided their school districts agree to resume at least some in-person instruction by March 1. In Arizona, where teachers began receiving shots this week, the governor warned schools that he expects students back in the classroom despite objections from top education officials and the highest COVID-19 diagnosis rate in the nation over the past week.
“We will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure,” said Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. “Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic.”
Leaders of Arizona’s major hospitals disagreed with the governor’s position, noting at a news conference Wednesday that the state is teetering on the brink of having to ration life-saving care.
“We understand that learning and bringing our children together is very important,” said Dr. Michael White of Valleywise Health. “But at this time with uncontrolled spread of the virus, we need to do things that we know will reduce the chance that the virus will spread and that is not gathering with people we don’t live with.”
The U.S. recorded an all-time, one-day high of 4,327 deaths on Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The nation’s overall death toll from COVID-19 has topped 380,000, closing in fast on the number of Americans killed in World War II. Confirmed infections have reached about 23 million.
President-elect Joe Biden initially pledged to reopen a majority of the nation’s schools in his first 100 days but recently revised the goal to most of the country’s K-8 schools. He has said teachers should be eligible for vaccinations as soon as possible after those who are at highest risk.
Some states aren’t waiting, but the process can be scattershot.
Meika Mark, a ninth-grade English teacher in Orange County, New York, got vaccinated Tuesday at a hospital, using a link a friend texted her.
“It’s just word of mouth: ‘Here’s a link and hopefully you get a slot,’” said Mark, who contracted the virus in March and spent the rest of the school year teaching remotely. “I know of a woman who had her husband sit in front of a computer literally all day and just click the refresh button until an appointment came up.”
Mark, 34, is now doing some in-person teaching and is grateful for the added layer of protection.
“I told my students before that every day is one day closer to normalcy,” she said. “I think if we just remind ourselves of that, it just helps to pause and live in the moment for a minute.”
High school band director Michael Crookston was among the first teachers to get a vaccination in Utah, which is among the earliest states to give priority to educators. Crookston has been in the classroom since the new school year began, despite having diabetes, which puts him at greater risk from the coronavirus.
An estimated 10.3 million Americans have received their first shot of the vaccine, or about 3 percent of the U.S. population.