This seems like a very important data point in the Great School Reopening Debate, no? If more than three-quarters of adults who are around students every day have received their first dose, which alone provides 80 percent protection from infection, that’s a powerful argument that schools can reopen safely in the near term.
And yet this announcement, despite its CDC pedigree, didn’t get much play in media yesterday and isn’t getting much play today. How come?
The unions keep insisting that urban schools may not be as safe as suburban ones because they’re more crowded and have poorer ventilation, and therefore shouldn’t reopen hastily. Well, between widespread teacher vaccination and low rates of infection among children naturally, that problem is increasingly solved. Let’s go.
“Our push to ensure that teachers, school staff, and childcare workers were vaccinated during March has paid off and paved the way for safer in-person learning,” said CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH. “CDC will build on the success of this program and work with our partners to continue expanding our vaccination efforts, as we work to ensure confidence in COVID-19 vaccines.”
On March 2, President Biden directed all states to make Pre-K-12 teachers, school staff, and childcare workers eligible for vaccination and prioritized vaccinations for them within the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program during the month of March. Following the directive, the number of states where these essential workers were eligible increased by more than 50 percent. Many jurisdictions made significant efforts, including holding school-specific vaccination events, that contributed to the success of this national endeavor, in addition to the prioritization within the pharmacy program.
More than 2 million teachers, school staff, and childcare workers were vaccinated through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program during the month of March. Additionally, 5-6 million were vaccinated through their state programs through the end of March.
I’m curious to see how eager the Biden White House is to tout its accomplishment. The president nudged states to give teachers priority, the states did so, and now we’ve reached a point where the great majority can go back to school with little fear of getting sick. That’s a real achievement!
So why do I have the feeling Team Joe won’t be playing it up, not wanting to put pressure on his union patrons? “The two-case rule, the six-foot rule, the ongoing remote-teaching opt-out even for healthy young teachers who’ve had plenty of time to be vaccinated—these are all the product of teachers union muscle,” Matt Welch wrote yesterday at Reason. “And they have contributed to America having less in-person instruction over the past year than almost any other industrialized country, causing massive learning loss (particularly among poor and minority students), emotional isolation, and labor force dropouts by women.” The CDC has now changed the six-foot rule, at least, but that’s a modest step compared to reminding the unions that most of their members are safe now and it’s time to get back to work. We’ll see how bold Rochelle Walensky is when she’s inevitably asked about that.
Hopefully pretty bold, as this new AP survey of schools in 37 states shows there’s still a long way to go on reopening:
The important caveat there is that they were tracking school restrictions in January and February, when cases were still high from the winter surge and vaccines were still relatively scarce. Some districts have relaxed restrictions since then. Even so, just 34 percent of kids were in class full-time this past winter, a moment when other nations with bad seasonal spikes kept their schools open. In the northeast, schools actually became more restrictive, going from 23 percent in class five days a week to just 19 percent. And the racial disparity in the survey is gory: 52 percent of white fourth-graders were in class full-time versus less than a third of black and Latino fourth-graders.
But there’s a hitch there. As much as we’d like to blame the unions entirely for the persistence of remote learning, the truth is more complicated. Andy Smarick has a valuable piece at the Dispatch today reminding readers of the dirty little secret in the school-reopening debate. Namely, some parents prefer to have their kids out of the classroom during the pandemic, even at the risk of developmental setbacks.
There has also been a racial dimension to parents’ views. In a July survey, black parents were 25 percentage points likelier than white parents to say returning was risky. A December report from the CDC found a similar racial gap. A survey found that among families given the option of in-person learning, white families were significantly more likely to choose it (76 percent) than black families (56 percent). This is corroborated by the experience in New York City and other districts where black families were disproportionately choosing to remain in online learning. In February, 80 percent of back adults said schools that weren’t open yet should stay closed until all teachers who want the vaccine have gotten it; only 51 percent of white respondents agreed.
There are many possible explanations for why race has mattered so much: underlying distrust in institutions, concerns about school safety, inadequate health care, the pandemic’s disproportionate costs on communities of color. There are also many possible reasons that rural and conservative parents were more willing to go back quickly—maybe their areas had fewer and/or less serious COVID cases, perhaps more jobs in these areas needed adults to be in-person not monitoring their students from home; maybe former President Donald Trump’s posture on the virus was influential; perhaps they were just naturally less risk-averse.
Pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson chimed in to say that her data shows the same thing. I’ve made that point myself, in fact, pointing out in February that for all of the GOP’s upset about the slow pace of school reopenings, many Americans were comfortable with it. At the time, more thought schools were reopening at the right pace than thought that they were moving too slowly and a majority approved of their local school district’s handling of the pandemic overall. Even the teachers unions got fair marks. You might respond to that by saying, “That’s because Democrats are paranoid about COVID and wildly overestimate the risks from infection,” and you’d be right. But it is what it is. And it explains why the unions think they might be able to get away with delaying classroom instruction past this fall. For many lefty parents, it may take months of post-pandemic data showing near-zero risk of infection in schools before they feel safe enough sending their kids back.