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Vaccinating teachers is crucial for returning to school

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This blog was first published on March 15, 2021, on the Global Partnership for Education website.

As countries roll out plans to inoculate their populations against COVID-19, the urgent need to vaccinate teachers is an increasingly pressing concern. But are teachers prioritized in national plans? Here’s an overview of what some countries are currently doing for teachers, and recommendations on why teachers must be considered as a priority group.

As countries proceed with rollout plans to inoculate their populations against COVID-19, the urgent need to vaccinate teachers is an increasingly pressing concern. The pandemic crippled education systems across the world.

By April 2020, most of the world’s schools were closed. To expedite their reopening, countries must act to protect teachers’ health, safety and wellbeing. This is a critical precursor to the renormalization of in-person teaching and learning and to the much-needed return of the socialization function of education.

In December 2020, UNESCO and Education International (EI), the global federation of education unions, issued a call to governments and the international community to consider the vital importance of vaccinating teachers and school personnel.

As UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and EI’s General Secretary David Edwards say in their joint video message,

 

Reopening schools and education institutions safely and keeping them open as long as possible is an imperative. In this context, as we see positive developments regarding vaccination, we believe that teachers and education support personnel must be considered as a priority group.”

 

As early as March 2020, the Teacher Task Force had launched an international Call for Action on Teachers to highlight critical measures that countries should take regarding teachers in the global pandemic, including the “protection of teachers’ and students’ health, safety and well-being”.

This was reaffirmed during the Extraordinary session of the Global Education Meeting (2020 GEM), convened by UNESCO in October 2020, where heads of state and ministers committed to support all teachers and education personnel as frontline workers and to prioritize their health and safety.

 

What countries are vaccinating teachers?

The Teacher Task Force notes that despite the urgency of protecting teachers and other education personnel, and the international community’s attempts to promote their priority for vaccination, they are not consistently prioritized in national plans, which is partly due to a slow global rollout.

Where well-defined rollout plans exist, most countries tend to give priority to health care workers, the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions putting them at high risk.

One exception is the jurisdiction of New Delhi in India, where all personnel, including teachers, who were actively involved in the city’s COVID-19 management efforts will be vaccinated on a priority basis as front line workers.

Chile has been relatively successful in its program to vaccinate teachers. To prepare for the return to classes, the Chilean government included teachers and education workers early on in the country’s massive vaccination drive. In just the previous two weeks, more than half of the country’s 513,000 teachers and education workers received shots in time for the start of the school year.

UNICEF/ Raphael Puget/UNI342143
During the pandemic, a teacher is teaching Arabic at a center for girls who are victims of gender-based violence in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
Credit: UNICEF/ Raphael Puget/UNI342143

 

Teachers in the second wave

In other countries, teachers are included in the second priority group for vaccination. This is true in ArgentinaColombia and Turkey. In Vietnam, teachers are given higher priority as they will be vaccinated in the same group as senior citizens and people with chronic illnesses, along with other workers providing essential services and diplomats.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, teachers are listed in the second priority group along with first responders, the military, those working in the justice system, transport workers and public servants essential to the pandemic response. Some who question this ranking have launched an online petition to Parliament to prioritize teachers and school/child care staff.

In a three-phase plan, teachers in South Africa are listed in a very large second-level priority group comprising around 17 million people, which includes essential workers such as police officers, persons in congregate settings such as prisons and shelters, people aged 60 and over, and people with various comorbidities.

Some countries have indirectly given precedence to teachers by taking the approach of prioritizing workers writ large, in order to spur stalled economies. In Indonesia, teachers along with the elderly form a second priority group in the national rollout plan. The country aims to vaccinate 5 million teachers by June.

Similarly, in Bangladesh, it was announced in early February that all primary teachers would be vaccinated, and by the end of the month teachers under the age of 40 registered on the health directorate’s list could sign up online to receive the vaccine.

With an increasing global rollout, some major commitments have been made. In the United States, all states have been asked to give priority to teachers in vaccination efforts, in accordance with a goal to have all pre-primary to secondary teachers and child care workers receiving their first shots by the end of March.

Similarly, the Ministry of Education in Singapore announced that it would begin vaccinating 150,000 teachers and other staff in educational institutions from as of early March.

Little information is available from African countries. Rwanda, however, which received 347,000 doses of vaccine from the UN-backed COVAX initiative in early March, has emphasized the vaccination of teachers, with the Ministry of Health stating that “teachers and lecturers are among the frontline workers being vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Elsewhere on the continent, teachers in Uganda will be included in the second priority group after health care workers and security personnel, while Kenya has also put teachers in a high priority group, after health care workers and security personnel but before those with possible comorbidities and over 58 years old.

 

Teachers still missing out

In other countries such as Italy and Brazil, teachers are relegated to a lower position in national plans for vaccine prioritization. Brazil has grouped teachers with security workers and prison staff, which has led to strikes in Sao Paulo to protest, among other issues, the health concerns that teachers face in schools.

In the Russian Federation, a certain mistrust of the vaccine may hamper efforts to vaccinate teachers, despite their high priority along with medical staff and social workers, in initial stages of mass vaccination.

Recently, new statistics reveal that two-thirds of poorer countries will face education budget cuts. This is problematic for numerous reasons, two of the main ones being the need to vaccinate teachers and recruit staff to meet the challenges of increased workload, teacher attrition and illness.

 

Many low-income countries are unlikely to obtain enough doses to vaccinate their teachers for some time. This puts massive pressure on teachers to teach in-person while unvaccinated putting theirs and others’ health at risk.

 

A recent study suggests that without greater international cooperation, more than 85 poor countries will not have widespread access to coronavirus vaccines before 2023.

 

Recommendations

In view of the global situation outlined above, the Teacher Task Force makes the following recommendations:

  • As called for by UNESCO and Education International, teachers should be considered frontline workers and a high-priority group to be vaccinated early to ensure that schools can reopen safely for in-person education.

  • Governments should work with teacher unions to ensure that all schools continue to adhere strictly to rules of safe operation, and that unvaccinated teachers have access to psychological and socio-emotional care, sick leave and support from school leaders and district/central level authorities.

  • Where high-priority groups require identification for access to vaccination, ministries should ensure that teacher lists are accurate and that teachers have adequate identification.

  • Lessons learned from previous pandemics should inform vaccine distribution plans to ensure that dissemination mechanisms are effectively put in place and run efficiently so that all teachers have access, including those in remote regions.

  • Governments should ensure adequate funds are available to support vaccination roll out to guarantee the safety of teachers and education support staff and the safe reopening of schools.

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Cover photo credit: Bret Bostock/Flickr
Caption: A medical syringe with a vaccine