Philly schools should not reopen until all staff can be guaranteed a COVID-19 vaccine | Expert Opinion
Ensuring all school staff will be vaccinated before reopening schools can also help manage school disruptions and reduce uncertainty until COVID-19 rates are down.
As a physician and a parent of elementary-aged children, I was eager to read the recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on strategies schools can use to lower the risk of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The CDC guidance is an important step toward reopening schools, and I applaud their attention to masking, physical distancing, and maintaining healthy facilities. The CDC recommendations describe vaccination of school staff as an important additional layer of COVID-19 prevention, yet they stop short of deeming it essential for in-person school. But here in Philadelphia, vaccination of school staff is critical for a safe and successful school reopening.
Philadelphia schools face many challenges to implementing the mitigation strategies recommended by the CDC, particularly those related to maintaining healthy facilities. Our school buildings were already in urgent need of repair before the pandemic, and now we have an emergent need: to ensure that schools can support educational activities without exacerbating the toll that COVID-19 takes on our community. Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy solutions to create healthy school facilities in Philadelphia. Fixing our schools requires huge investments in infrastructure for public education.
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And yet, while we don’t have any quick fixes for our school buildings, or for COVID-19, we do have reason to hope. With highly effective vaccines, we can start to imagine life beyond the pandemic. Teachers and school staff will soon be able to enter school buildings knowing that they are armed with the best defense we have against COVID-19.
We are already partway there. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has agreed to help vaccinate teachers and school staff starting at the end of February. Unfortunately, school reopening is slated to begin March 1, only one week after CHOP begins that initiative. This plan does not adequately protect our school staff or communities. Although rates of SARS-CoV-2 cases are decreasing, they are still objectively high, and the rise of new variants makes possible future surges in COVID-19 cases. Given these risks, we must ensure that all school staff can be fully vaccinated before we ask them to return to school buildings.
Ensuring all school staff are able to be vaccinated before opening schools can also help manage school disruptions and reduce uncertainty until COVID-19 rates are down. New CDC recommendations advise that individuals who have been fully vaccinated do not need to be quarantined, even after exposure, so long as they have received both doses of the vaccine and had adequate time after the second dose to ensure efficacy. If teachers and school staff are fully vaccinated before returning to school, it lowers the chance that classrooms will be disrupted, yet again, if and when COVID-19 cases occur in schools.
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I am immeasurably grateful to my children’s teachers and all of the school staff who have been working furiously to adapt education in a pandemic. I know they miss teaching in the classroom as much as our kids miss being there. I know that they are well-aware of all the social, emotional, and other support that can’t be replaced, despite their best attempts, with remote school. I also know that they deserve to be able to go back to the buildings with the confidence that their city has made available to them the one thing that we know will dramatically lower their risk of COVID-19: a vaccine.
We are at an important turning point in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. We know more every day about what works to lower the risk of infection, and we have an effective vaccine against the virus. By vaccinating teachers and school staff before reopening schools, we can keep them safe and ensure that when schools reopen, they stay open.
Rhea Powell is an internal medicine physician in Philadelphia.