Biden faces criticism over push to vaccinate teachers
The Biden administration is defending the president’s decision to prioritize vaccinations for teachers and school staff.
Critics charge it will deepen inequalities around vaccine access and allege President Biden is bowing to pressure from teachers unions.
The plan, announced Tuesday, uses the administration’s partnership with pharmacies to prioritize giving educators at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine this month.
In making the announcement, Biden said educators should be treated like essential employees.
Céline Gounder, an infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist at New York University who advised the Biden transition team on COVID-19, tweeted that the move “doesn’t make any sense.”
Gounder argued that older, at-risk teachers should already be getting vaccinated under current priority groups. She noted pharmacies are not getting any additional allocations.
Without extra supply, Gounder said pharmacies would be “taking vaccine away from higher-risk persons & communities of color to vaccine young healthy teachers. This is an ANTI-EQUITY move.”
More than 30 states and the District of Columbia already put teachers in a priority group for vaccines, but Biden said he is using the “full authority of the federal government” in “directing every state to do the same.”
Responding to Gounder’s criticism, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the initiative is intended not just for teachers, but also for a much more diverse workforce that includes bus drivers, janitorial workers and child care workers.
“So our view is actually that this step is one that is meant to help communities of color, help students who are already being disproportionately disadvantaged by schools being closed,” Psaki said.
Bioethics experts argue the priority should remain vaccinating people who are most at risk for getting seriously ill based on their age and health, not their job.
“By far, the fairest, most principled, most transparent way of allocating the vaccines would be to first try to protect those who are most likely to get very sick or die,” said Daniel Sulmasy, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University.
“We’re jumping, way, way ahead of that if a teacher who’s 28 years old and healthy is getting a vaccine ahead of a 64 year old with diabetes and asthma,” Sulmasy added. “We ought to be reaching out to the people who are most in need, and making special effort to reach out to those who have been most seriously affected by the pandemic.”
Biden’s initiative goes above and beyond guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommended teachers get vaccinated but did not single it out as essential.
Biden acknowledged this on Tuesday but pointed to “anxieties” among teachers and parents.
“We can reopen schools if the right steps are taken even before employees are vaccinated, but time and again, we’ve heard from educators and parents that have anxieties about that,” Biden said. “So as yet another move to help accelerate the safe reopening of our schools, let’s treat in-person learning like an essential service that it is.”
Biden has been under intense criticism from Republicans for not doing enough to urge schools to reopen, given evidence that they can do so safely with precautions such as mask wearing, better ventilation and distancing.
The White House has been drumming up support for opening schools even as the administration has faced thorny questions on the issue for weeks.
First lady Jill Biden and newly confirmed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Wednesday toured reopened schools in two states.
Cardona said ensuring teachers are vaccinated for swift reopenings will be his “top priority.”
Last month’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on school reopening said elementary and middle schools should be reopened as soon as possible but based recommendations in part on rates of transmission in the school’s surrounding community.
The guidance was meant to calm the reopening debate, but only fanned the flames. Critics called the rules too strict and said they added unnecessary barriers.
However, many teachers unions have adamantly opposed returning for in-person learning without vaccinations, because they say schools either don’t have the resources to follow the CDC’s plan, or won’t.
Unions have also opposed reopening until community infections are driven to much lower levels.
Psaki noted Wednesday that inoculating teachers is “not a prerequisite” for reopening classrooms but that Biden believes they should be “prioritized.”
Vaccine supplies are ramping up, and Biden said he expects that by the end of May there will be enough doses for every American who wants a shot to get one.
But having the supply is not the same as getting those shots into arms, a process that will likely take much longer.