Coronavirus

Teachers don’t need to be vaccinated for Maine schools to reopen safely

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Governor Janet Mills updated Maine’s statewide vaccination plan Wednesday to make teachers and childcare providers, regardless of age, eligible for vaccination following a directive from President Joe Biden on Tuesday for states to inoculate these workers by the end of March.

The move comes just days after Mills announced the state would abandon the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommended vaccine strategy and adopt one that prioritizes inoculations based on age. The change went into effect Wednesday, the same day Mills updated the state’s vaccine plan again to include teachers and childcare providers.

According to the administration’s release, 10,632 Mainers who work in schools and childcare facilities were already eligible for a vaccine under the new age-based approach. By allowing all school and childcare staff to be vaccinated regardless of age, an additional 36,400 school employees and 16,000 childcare providers are now eligible.

Under the new policy, pharmacies participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which includes Hannaford, Walgreens and Walmart pharmacies, are directed to grant access to “available appointments exclusively to school staff and licensed child care workers moving forward.” The release was less clear about when and how school staff and childcare providers could sign up for appointments at a vaccine site operated by the state.

“Additionally, vaccine clinics in Maine will begin accepting appointments for school staff and licensed child care workers as soon as they are able,” the release said, directing these Mainers to use the state’s COVID-19 vaccination website to find up-to-date information on local clinics accepting appointments.

Nearly every interest group has lobbied state officials around the country to be placed at the front of the line for vaccination. Teachers unions have been particularly vocal in their calls for prioritization, in addition to other demands well outside the scope of their bargaining capabilities.

In July 2020, the union representing Los Angeles’ K-12 public school teachers demanded the state defund the police and enact Medicare-for-All and a wealth taxes before teachers would return to work. Another union in San Francisco demanded “the installation of lids on every toilet” before its members would go back to work.

As noted by The Washington Post, teachers’ unions have resisted returning to the classroom in many communities and Biden’s directive on Tuesday was meant to remove a major barrier to reopening schools: the supposed need for teachers to be vaccinated.

But as Biden’s own CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on February 3, teachers don’t need to be vaccinated for schools across the country to reopen safely.

“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely, Walensky said last month. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”

As noted Wednesday on Twitter by Mike Shepherd, politics editor of the Bangor Daily News, recent data in Maine suggest COVID-19 isn’t all that prevalent in the classroom.

As was the concern with Maine updating its plan to prioritize vaccination based on age, there are still younger Mainers with certain underlying health conditions who are waiting in line for a vaccine, and who are potentially more vulnerable than healthier, older Mainers. These individuals will continue to wait as healthy 20- and 30-something-year-old teachers and childcare providers get vaccinated before them.

Since the state’s vaccine supply is still limited, it has, and always will, make the most sense to prioritize vaccinations based on risk. Those who are at greatest risk of death from COVID-19 should be vaccinated first. Those with the least amount of risk should be vaccinated last.

As much as we want our schools to be open and our kids to be back where they belong, it’s not necessary for teachers to be vaccinated for schools to reopen safely. Unfortunately, our leaders don’t have the political courage to tell teachers unions the truth.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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