Washington’s students, especially those most vulnerable, are suffering because of school districts’ failure to reopen classrooms. Leaders need to act: Move teachers up on the priority list for COVID-19 vaccinations — but only if schools resume in-person learning now.
Even if the state’s approximately 153,000 public school employees are fast-tracked for vaccination, it will take weeks to inoculate all of them. It will take longer to administer second doses, and another month or so for the vaccines to take full effect. There is no reason to wait for that to happen.
As research and Washington’s own experience have shown, and as state health and education officials and Gov. Jay Inslee have repeatedly assured educators, schools can safely operate if they take public-health precautions, especially in lower grades. Even so, only 22% of students were receiving any in-person instruction during the week of Jan. 18, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That’s a meager increase over the 15% who were learning in classrooms before winter break. Lawmakers’ attempts to compel school districts to follow science-based public-health guidelines appear to have stalled.
This delay is doing real damage, as a recent survey of 1,175 youth in foster care conducted by the education nonprofit Treehouse clearly shows. Nearly half those students will need remedial instruction, tutoring or other homework assistance to get back on track after nearly a year of remote learning, Treehouse estimates.
Nearly one-fourth of its students with disabilities had not received adequate accommodations from their school districts this school year, according to the survey. Six percent had received no accommodations during that same period.
“We’re at risk of losing a generation of kids in foster care to the pandemic,” Treehouse CEO Lisa Chin wrote in a statement about the survey of students conducted in late November and released last month.
The youth surveyed by Treehouse were changing schools and foster care placements at double the rates experienced before the pandemic. Nearly one-in-10 were completely disengaged from school. And this is only one window into a dire and worsening picture. For vulnerable youth like those in foster care, in-person school provides more than academics, it provides critical social and emotional support from teachers and peers.
School staff aged 50 and older could be eligible for vaccines this month, according to state guidelines.
But despite repeated requests from educators, Inslee declined to move younger teachers up the priority list. “I just do not believe that 25-year-old teachers think they should get in line ahead of their 80-year-old grandparents,” he said at a recent news conference.
This is public-health policy, not “The Hunger Games.”
This is not about the relative value of the lives of teachers and elders, but the best, safest order to inoculate the population. Reopening classrooms means getting kids in safe, supportive and motivating environments while giving many parents some chance to work. It’s a rising tide that will help entire communities.
On Friday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal announced a partnership with Kaiser Permanente that should make it easier for teachers and school staff to access vaccines as soon as they are eligible under state protocols, but it does not move lower-risk teachers to the front of the line.
Something has got to give. As the adults point fingers, the students suffer — particularly the youngest and those who the most need protection and help.