'It's been scary’: getting vaccinated akin to lottery for US teachers

For many American teachers, access to the vaccine seems to depend less on what they do as a frontline educator and more on where they do it

A custodian wipes down a teacher’s desk in a kindergarten classroom in Arnold, Misosuri, on 5 November 2020.
A custodian wipes down a teacher’s desk in a kindergarten classroom in Arnold, Misosuri, in November 2020. Photograph: Colter Peterson/AP
A custodian wipes down a teacher’s desk in a kindergarten classroom in Arnold, Misosuri, in November 2020. Photograph: Colter Peterson/AP

Last modified on Mon 15 Feb 2021 05.02 EST

Carron Johnson, an instructional care aide in St Louis, Missouri, knows exactly how important her job is in an American school.

She is currently working in a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning along with other teachers in the St Louis public schools district despite ongoing fears posed by the coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered many schools across the US and thrown the entire education system into chaos.

“Our community depends on us to educate these children in a safe environment and to not get them sick, and vice versa,” said Johnson, who is also vice-president for paraprofessionals at AFT Local 420 union.

But keeping teachers safe is not easy – or consistent. Across the US the availability of vaccines to teachers and other workers in American schools has become something of a lottery, with it being available in some areas, and not in many others even as public schools are being reopened. For many American teachers, access to the vaccine seems to depend less on what you do as a frontline educator and more on where you do it.

“We are really trying to stress the fact that teachers and other school employees deserve to be near the front of the line for vaccinations,” said Johnson. She noted there have been different emails and websites for people to make an appointment for a Covid-19 vaccine to be in a line, but no dates have yet been set or scheduled for teachers and other school staff to be able to receive vaccines.

‘You can put your name on the list and there’s no telling you if you’re going to get a vaccination five months from now,” Johnson added. “People with underlying issues and elders are very stressed and our anxiety is very high.”

Since the pandemic started, there have been nearly 20,000 coronavirus cases and more than 360 deaths recorded in the city of St Louis. According to the American Federation of Teachers, at least 530 educators around the US have died so far due to coronavirus. As of 8 February, less than 3% of Americans have been fully vaccinated from Covid-19, and less than 10% have received single doses of the vaccine.

As more schools around the US have started to reopen to in-person learning, teachers and staff are pushing back on doing so without vaccinations for employees.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expected to issue new guidance on school reopenings during the pandemic. The CDC issued guidelines on prioritizing Covid-19 vaccination rollouts in phases, with teachers designated as part of phase 2, but individual states decide on where teachers fall in vaccine phased rollouts and the speed of vaccinations has differed greatly from state to state.

The Biden administration’s goal is to reopen most K-12 schools in the US within Joe Biden’s first 100 days as president, even if all teachers and staff are not yet vaccinated.

According to data compiled by Education Week, at least 24 states have made some or all teachers eligible for Covid-19 vaccines, though delays in vaccine appointments remain common.

In Texas, teachers tried to push back against school reopenings ahead of the 2020-21 school year, but the state mandated schools must be open, leaving it up to parents to either send their children to school for in-person learning or to learn remotely.

August Plock, a high school social studies teacher outside Austin, Texas, noted more parents have opted to send their children into schools as the pandemic has continued.

“A lot of our elementary schools are getting up there to 19 to 20 students per class, and they’re not effectively being able to socially distance the kids and that’s our big concern,” said Plock.

He was able to receive a Covid-19 vaccine recently, but only because he is a diabetic, as teachers have yet to receive a priority designation in Texas.

“School district superintendents are pushing the state to put teachers in one phase, but that’s not for another four to six weeks, and there seems to be a shortage of vaccines in the state. A lot of people are trying to get it,” he said.

Julie Ware, a high school English teacher in Lewes, Delaware, managed to get a Covid-19 vaccine only because she is at high risk as she is currently in remission for acute lymphatic leukemia.

Her school recently started hybrid learning the first week of February, and the adjustment has been hectic.

“My colleagues, if they’re not high risk, then I’m honestly I have no idea when they will be able to get vaccines,” she said. “It’s been scary. I can only tell my students so many times to put on their masks correctly. I don’t feel like any teacher should have ever been put in the position of having to choose between taking care of their students, but also putting their lives at risk.”

In Butler, Pennsylvania, high school English teacher Kimberly Vero Lynn has yet to receive any information on when she and her colleagues will be able to start getting vaccinated, even as in-person learning has continued throughout the 2020-21 school year, though several weeks were spent teaching remotely due to coronavirus outbreaks.

“Our job duties have doubled or quadrupled amid the burden of worry we have for not only our health, but the health of our families and the lack of transparency to the public by school boards and administrations,” said Vero Lynn.

Teachers in Chicago have pushed back against the city and Chicago public schools’ efforts to reopen schools to in-person learning before teachers are able to receive Covid-19 vaccinations. The school district and city started to lock out teachers who did not report to schools in January 2020, before recently coming to a tentative agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union on school reopening plans.

“Nobody in my school that I’m aware of has been able to get vaccinated yet. We are all sharing links for appointments when we find them, but they’re all booked or they are cancelled soon after. It’s extremely frustrating,” said a high school art teacher who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation in regards to ongoing lockouts of teachers.

The teacher added: “We’ve taken to calling it ‘the Vaccine Hunger Games’. Vaccinations have been concentrated in whiter, more affluent areas of the city, while most of the students in my school are Black. I have never felt more disrespected or like my life was more disposable. They just don’t care about us or our families and they don’t care about our students and their health either. They want us back in the classrooms so parents can go back to work and they can get the economy of the city moving again.”