Teachers are a force multiplier for society.
There is good reason for putting teachers at the front of the vaccine line, some experts say, and many states have. Vaccinating helps teachers and their families stay healthy and by extension helps all students (and their families) who come into contact with school staff, multiplying the benefit.
Just as vaccinating health care workers gives hospitals stability to stay open, protecting teachers gives schools stability to stay open and for kids to learn.
The surge after the New Year’s holiday almost caused schools to go virtual due to the absence of teachers either infected or exposed to COVID-19. There is credible scientific data that children are more likely than adults to be asymptomatic, making them potential silent spreaders. Unless there is surveillance testing of all students, both those with and without symptoms, this virus could be circulating in schools. Research has shown that if kids are kept distanced, and masked, school settings can be kept to minimal spread even when community transmission is high.
Locally, however, every time we have a surge in cases our contact tracing program is overwhelmed. That means contact tracing and case investigations can’t keep up, and some infections go without investigation. So we are blinded at the very moment we most need to know what’s going on.
No matter what the data shows in other places, the truth is we don’t have the case investigations or level of testing to give evidence-based answers about what is actually happening in our schools. Officials did report that 42 valley cases, or about 14%, were in school-aged children between the ages of 5 and 18 from Jan. 22 to Feb. 4.
We do know that there have been documented cases in some youth sports. Since there is no appetite to stop school or club sports — and there’s good reason to consider the mental and physical health benefits for students that in-person instruction and such sports provide — vaccinating teachers is more urgent than ever.
Critics have compared the patchy deployment of this life-saving liquid to the Hunger Games. It can feel that way when, hypothetically, two teachers could live in the same house in Driggs, Idaho, and one who works in Idaho could be vaccinated while the other, who commutes over the pass to teach in Jackson Hole, could not.
The Teton County Health Department and St. John’s Health are doing an excellent job. It’s not their fault that distribution formulas unwittingly punish counties with a commuting workforce. Things look brighter this month with Teton County receiving an increased supply of vaccine.
Keeping teachers healthy keeps kids in school, which keeps parents working and the local economy more stable.
Health officials at state and national levels should look at vaccine priorities and see if there isn’t a way to move teachers up the line, multiplying protection before more contagious variants take hold.