Editorial: Vaccinate the teachers

Posted 1/21/21

Choosing who gets the COVID-19 vaccine, and when, is one of the greatest challenges a public servant has ever faced. That’s saying a lot for a group of both elected and appointed leaders who …

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Editorial: Vaccinate the teachers


Choosing who gets the COVID-19 vaccine, and when, is one of the greatest challenges a public servant has ever faced. That’s saying a lot for a group of both elected and appointed leaders who have been making life-and-death decisions for individuals, businesses and the economy for nearly a year.

Rhode Island moved as quickly as it could to get the vaccine to three groups considered the highest priority: frontline healthcare workers, first-responders and those living in congregate care settings, namely nursing homes, assisted living facilities and the prisons. Though nothing is easy during this pandemic, that was the easy part.

Now come the tougher decisions. The next wave of vaccinations could go to the most elderly, those with the most significant underlying conditions (pity the persons who must sort through and validate those criteria) or those with the greatest risk while performing their roles within society.

Weighing all the many factors, we advocate that teachers move to the head of the line.

Now that healthcare workers and first-responders have been vaccinated, no other classification of worker or citizen has a greater impact on the healthy functioning of society as teachers. First, consider the numbers. There are roughly 10,000 public school teachers in the state and several thousand more in private schools. They interact daily with about 170,000 students K to 12. Factor in their parents and caregivers, and teachers directly or indirectly impact the lives at least one-third of Rhode Islanders. Add in pre-school and daycare workers and the impact climbs toward 40 percent of the state’s million residents.

Thus, the state could vaccinate about 1.5 percent of its population and directly or indirectly have a net positive impact on up to 40 percent of the people who live here.

That is enormous impact for one group of workers. Practically speaking, teachers provide the structure that allows a massive segment of the state’s workers to do their own jobs, playing their roles in the healthy functioning of society.

Beyond the practical, however, is the true value of a teacher — influencing and leading young people on their path to adulthood. Despite all the good that’s been accomplished through many months of pandemic-influenced teaching, the educational system is barely holding things together. So much of the enthusiasm and creativity spawned by the shift to distance learning last spring withered and shrank this fall, for many reasons.

Told they had to go back into buildings, somewhat against their will, some teachers started the year with resentment and half-hearted efforts. Layer in the strict quarantining and close-contact rules in these schools, the frequent spread of the virus in student populations, and the many layers of distancing, rules and cleaning breaks throughout the day — many considered necessary to assuage jittery faculties — and schools are a shell of themselves. One could argue they are functioning at about half their true capacity, intellectually and academically speaking.

Will teacher vaccinations cure all the ills in education? No, but they would have an outsized impact. Vaccinations would remove much of the anxiety that is undermining the quality of education. They will also end the debilitating practice of sending a teacher home on mandatory quarantine because she was in close contact with an infected student. No teacher can effectively do her job from her kitchen table, with half her students sitting inside a classroom miles away, half lying in their beds at their own homes, and her own children logging into their own classes 15 feet away.

It’s a losing proposition, but one teachers are facing every day. Get them the shots and let them get back to doing what they do best.

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Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.