US First Lady Jill Biden and Education Secretary push for reopenings and Covid-19 shots for teachers

US First Lady Jill Biden (second, right) and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona (second, left), visit a robotics lab as they tour Fort LeBoeuf Middle School, on March 3, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

MERIDEN, CONNECTICUT (NYTIMES) - Following US President Joe Biden's call Tuesday (March 2) to have every school employee receive at least one vaccine shot by the end of March, the White House began a campaign to drum up support for the quick reopening of the nation's schools by sending first lady Jill Biden and the newly confirmed education secretary Miguel Cardona on a two-state tour of reopened schools Wednesday.

Mr Biden's promise to vaccinate teachers elevated his push to reopen schools even before the nation is fully inoculated. At the White House's direction, vaccinations will be available at local pharmacies through a federal programme. With the states setting priorities for eligibility otherwise, there remains a limit on actually getting shots in arms.

At their first stop in Meriden -Mr Cardona's hometown - the secretary said that quickly vaccinating teachers would be his "top priority."

"We must continue to reopen America's schools for in-person learning as quickly and as safely as possible," he said at an elementary school where students were learning in masks and behind Plexiglas dividers. "The president recognises this, which is why he took bold action yesterday to get teachers and school staff vaccinated quickly."

As the state education commissioner in Connecticut, he pushed to reopen the state's schools during the coronavirus pandemic. The White House now expects Mr Cardona to do the same on a national scale as teachers unions around the country raise concerns about the safety of resuming in-person instruction.

The first lady, who has a doctorate in educational leadership and teaches full-time at Northern Virginia Community College, said that while the White House would be following Mr Cardona's lead, both she and her students were impatient to return safely to classrooms.

"Teachers want to be back," she said. "We want to be back. Last week I said to my students, 'Hey, guys, how're you doing?' And they said, 'Dr B, we're doing OK, but we can't wait to be back to the classroom.'"

Parents across the country are frustrated with the pace of reopening and in some cases are starting to rebel. Nationally, fewer than half of students are attending public schools that offer traditional in-person instruction full time. And many teachers have rejected plans to return to the classroom without being vaccinated.

Even so, most schools are already operating at least partially in person, and evidence suggests that they are doing so relatively safely. Research shows in-school virus spread can be mitigated with simple safety measures like masking, distancing, hand-washing and open windows.

"Let's treat in-person learning like an essential service that it is," Mr Biden said Tuesday, even as he noted that not every school employee would be able to get a vaccine next week. "And that means getting essential workers who provide that service - educators, school staff, child care workers - get them vaccinated immediately."

Educators will be able to sign up to receive a vaccine through a local drugstore as part of a federal programme in which shots are delivered directly to pharmacies, Mr Biden said.

White House officials said Mr Biden's move to speed up vaccination of teachers is based on the president's view that they are critical to getting the country back to normal.

Ms Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that inoculating teachers is "not a prerequisite" but that Mr Biden believes they should be "prioritised."

At least 34 states and the District of Columbia are already vaccinating school workers to some extent, according to a New York Times database. Others were quick to fall in line after Mr Biden announced his plan.

On Tuesday, Washington state added educators and licensed child care workers to its top tier for priority, accelerating its plan by a few weeks.

In guidelines issued last month, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention urged that elementary and secondary schools be reopened as soon as possible and offered a step-by-step plan to get students back in classrooms.

While the agency recommended giving teachers priority, it said that vaccination should "nevertheless not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction."

Many schools are already fully open in areas with substantial or high community transmission, where the agency suggests that schools be open only in hybrid mode or in distance-learning mode. The agency says those schools can remain open if mitigation strategies are consistently implemented, students and staff are masked, and monitoring of cases in school suggests limited transmission.

The agency's guidelines say that 6 feet of distancing between individuals is required at substantial and high levels of community transmission. Many school buildings cannot accommodate that, which may lead some districts to stick with a hybrid instruction model when they might otherwise have gone to full in-person instruction.

Many local teachers unions remain adamantly opposed to restarting in-person learning now, saying that school districts do not have the resources or the inclination to follow CDC guidance on coronavirus safety.

Without vaccinations, the unions say, adults in schools would remain vulnerable to serious illness or death from Covid-19 because children, while much less prone to illness, can nevertheless readily carry the virus.

Studies suggest that children younger than 10 transmit the virus about half as efficiently as adults do, but older children may be much like adults.

Public health research models have shown that vaccinating teachers could greatly reduce infections in schools.

"It should be an absolute priority," said Dr Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Still, requiring that teachers be vaccinated could greatly slow the pace of school reopenings, he and other experts acknowledged.

Teachers unions want not only vaccination but also that districts improve ventilation and ensure 6 feet of distancing - two measures that have been shown to reduce the spread of the virus. (The CDC guidelines emphasize 6 feet of distance only when prevalence of the virus is high and nodded only briefly to the need for ventilation.)

The unions have also insisted that schools not open until the infection rates in their communities are very low.

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