Jennifer O’Connell: Why are teachers not being moved up the vaccination queue?
There is no immediate fix to get schools reopened, but there are two things we could do
Schools are much better prepared for remote teaching this time, but the hands-on bit at primary level still has to be done by the hordes of harassed, underqualified, homeschooling parents. Photograph: iStock
Our meaningful Christmas has cast us back into the darkness of last spring. Almost a year has passed since the first positive swabs on this shore, and in that time, there has been a lot of new information about the virus, but not much by way of fresh thinking.
Instead of Cheltenham goers, we’re raging about Lanzarote tans. Otherwise, the script is pretty much as it was 11 months ago. Stay home, wash your hands, wear your mask. Wait for this rolling lockdown to end, and try to avoid another meaningful celebration that will catapult us straight into the next one.
The idea that we can achieve Zero Covid in weeks or months by sealing our borders is an “utterly false promise”, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) said this week. But the team isn’t saying what a more realistic promise might be.
And so schools remain shut, with no clear plan for their reopening. #CancelTheLeavingCert is trending again. Children with special needs are abandoned to regress at home, without the structure and learning opportunities they desperately need. Their parents are marooned in a sea of sympathy but, so far, no actual solutions.
Schools are much better prepared for remote teaching this time, but the hands-on bit at primary level still has to be done by the hordes of harassed, underqualified, homeschooling parents. They’re working and teaching and cleaning and feeding and doing Zooms and getting everyone out for a bit of fresh air and pretending everything is tickety-boo. And those are just the lucky ones. What do people who can’t work remotely do? They split shifts with the other parent maybe, or they hire a tutor on the black market. None of it is tenable.
There’s no immediate fix to get schools reopened, but there are two things we could do. The first is to secure a supply of antigen tests for schools. These tests have the advantage of being cheap, efficient and giving a positive reading in under 30 minutes, in cases where the virus is still infectious. They’re less reliable than the “gold standard” PCR tests, but they can isolate the sick early, who can then get a lab test for confirmation. To date, the HSE has only used about 4,000 antigen tests, though the European Commission has recently signed a contract for the delivery of up to 20 million. An expert group appointed by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly is assessing whether Ireland’s share could be deployed to schools and workplaces.
The second thing is to move teachers right up the vaccine priority list.
The ugly, public row wasn’t a fair reflection on the heroic efforts being made by thousands of teachers
Vaccinating teachers early isn’t exactly a radical proposal. In the US, everyone who works in a school – from teachers to bus drivers – is classed as category 1b, meaning they’re next in line after older people in long-term care facilities and health care workers. In some parts of the US, teachers have already had their jabs; most will be vaccinated by February.
Here, the country’s 66,000 teachers are currently 11th on the list of the government’s priorities. That puts them behind everyone over 65, healthcare workers, “people aged 18 to 64 living or working in crowded settings” (9th) and key workers “in essential jobs who cannot avoid a high risk of exposure” (10th on the list).
This list was drawn up according to several key principles, including moral equality, fairness and minimising harm. Vaccinating healthcare workers meets the minimising harm threshold, as it also benefits “the patients they care for, producing a multiplier effect. Society also has a reciprocity-based duty to protect those who bear additional risks to safeguard the welfare of others”. But isn’t the same true of teachers?
Several things have changed since this plan, which was always supposed to be an evolving one, was devised. The first is that schools were still open then, and there was a reasonable degree of confidence that they wouldn’t close again.
The second is that the “game-changer vaccine” – the one developed by AstraZeneca with a team from Oxford – looks like it won’t be coming in the quantities anticipated. We also learned this week that Germany believes AstraZeneca hasn’t made enough data available to ascertain the vaccine’s effectiveness in the over 65s.
If the pizza boxes full of hope were arriving so fast that timelines could be compressed, wrangling over the order of allocation to various cohorts might be a waste of everyone’s energy. Now that schools are shut and vaccines will initially be scarcer than the Government had predicted, it has become more urgent.
The relationship between teachers’ unions and the government has been fractious throughout the pandemic, culminating earlier this month in a refusal by unions representing teachers and special needs assistants to support the reopening of special education schools. The ugly, public row wasn’t a fair reflection on the heroic efforts being made by thousands of teachers to continue educating their students as best they can, or their genuine desire to get back to school. And it shouldn’t impact on the case being made by unions for the early vaccination of their members.
But the politically unpalatable reality is that for teachers to move up the vaccine list so that a plan can be made for schools reopening, some other group of key workers will have to be moved down. The decision can’t be about who is most deserving, or who shouts loudest. It has to be about what brings the most benefit to society. As one of the physicians on the US committee that drew up the recommendations told NPR, teachers are being prioritised because “children are being left behind”.
Here, the rationale for vaccine allocation is all about fairness, equality and maximising the benefit of every single dose. There are 66,000 teachers responsible for one million pupils. Even a homeschooling parent struggling with Busy at Maths 1 could work out the multiplier effect on that.