Teacher vaccination must be a priority if in-person schooling is to continue uninterrupted during the pandemic.
As our children’s daily lives and routines continue to be disrupted in unprecedented ways, we must remember the value in-person schooling provides for children’s overall well-being and active lifestyles while simultaneously creating opportunities for learning and growth together. At the moment, in some provinces students have the option to learn remotely (virtual learning), in person or in hybrid models that combine both. However, with many school-age children lacking home broadband access, the breadth of the Canadian digital divide has been revealed. As well, recent media reports indicate that poor internet connection in rural Canada is making online schooling a nightmare. Virtual learning already has its own set of problems – a patchy connection makes it all the more frustrating.
Education is a significant social determinant of health and improving child and youth welfare is of the utmost importance for Canada’s 8 million children, particularly for the 10–15 per cent (between 840,000 and 1.26 million children) who have an emotional or learning disorder.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines urge in-person, full-time instruction, especially for kindergarten through Grade 5 and for students with special needs who benefit from an environment in which they have to maintain attention and regulate their behaviours and emotions.
Canadian teachers have made commendable sacrifices agreeing to work unconditionally (no pandemic special pay or even incentives like prioritizing teachers for vaccination) in the midst of a pandemic, highlighting their commitment to our children and their futures. This despite being well aware that they are less able to physically distance while working in the classroom setting.
Prioritizing educators for vaccinations should be among our public health priorities. The Canadian National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has categorized teachers who are working in person as front-line essential workers. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) also acknowledges teachers and education personnel as front-line workers, holding jobs critical to the continued functioning of society. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has appealed to governments around the world to prioritize teachers for vaccination after front-line health personnel and high-risk populations. UNESCO and the World Health Organization’s global Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization and Education International have urged recognizing school teachers as a priority group for vaccination to allow education to continue.
Meanwhile, hundreds of schools are dealing with active outbreaks across Canada. Moreover, data from COVID-19 work-related injury claims in schools are a clear sign that in-school transmission is occurring at higher rates even compared to the high-risk health-care sector. For example, under the WorkSafeBC COVID-19 claim-acceptance language, school teachers’ claims have been accepted at a rate of 89 per cent compared to 74 per cent for health-care workers. Recent research has also found that educators play a substantial role in COVID-19 transmission both in schools and in communities, highlighting the importance of preventing infections among educators to minimize community transmissions.
Given that child vaccination may not be available until at least the fall of 2022 and the uncertainty around the long-term health effects of COVID-19 infection, it would be unwise to let the virus circulate in classroom settings. Multi-layered school mitigation measures and teacher vaccinations will reduce the risk of transmission within schools and into households substantially, protecting children and their families.
Even though all leading medical journals have advocated for priority in-person schooling, only the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) advocates for priority vaccination for educators. But if teachers feel unsafe, unsupported, burned out or unprotected, how can we expect them to take on the enormous responsibility of supporting, educating and nurturing our children? The vaccination of school staff must be a priority not only because of the significance their educational role plays but also because their protection is important to our society.
Following NEJM’s lead, should we not, as a community be advocating the safety of our teachers? They deserve nothing less.