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Education advocates are urging Gov. Greg Abbott to recognize teachers and school staff as front-line workers so they can be among the first groups of Texans eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.
On Wednesday, Abbott said Texas could receive enough coronavirus vaccine doses to immunize up to 1.4 million Texans beginning mid-December, as long as U.S. health officials approve coronavirus vaccine candidates from drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna.
Earlier this week Kent Scribner, the Fort Worth ISD superintendent and chair of the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents, and the Texas Classroom Teachers Association sent separate letters to the governor making the case that teachers should be recognized as front-line workers as they are largely required to continue to teach in person.
In an interview, Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teacher’s Association, said many educators are concerned about being in schools and would rather not be there in person, but having access to a vaccine “would ease some of their concerns a bit.”
“[Teachers] are surrounded by students all day every day, hours at a time and we think they really have been put at risk,” said Paige Williams, director of legislation for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, in an interview. “It's time for everyone to step up and take care of them and try to take care of them as quickly as possible.”
Scribner said educators working in areas where coronavirus infection rates are highest should be prioritized within the group.
Abbott did not respond to a request for comment about whether teachers and school staff will be prioritized for the vaccine.
The “first tier” of Texans to receive the initial round of vaccinations, as outlined by the state, include hospital-based workers who are in direct contact with patients, staff at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, emergency medical services providers and home health aides who manage “vulnerable and high-risk” patients.
If there are enough doses, a “second-tier” of health care workers — including workers in outpatient settings such as doctors’ offices, school nurses and mortuary workers like medical examiners and embalmers — will be eligible for vaccination.
Front-line workers and medically vulnerable people are also priorities, based on plans from the state, but the state health group in charge of the vaccine rollout hasn’t announced who will be considered a front-line worker.
When schools reopened for the fall semester, the state education agency required they offer an in-person learning option. Several school districts tried to accommodate teachers who wanted to work from home because of health conditions, but most teachers had to go back to school as more students returned to classrooms. Given Texas’ strict labor laws, teachers who did not want to return had little leverage other than quitting.
Texas public schools have reported 31,678 known student cases and 18,742 staff cases of the coronavirus since late July, according to data submitted to the Texas Education Agency as of Nov. 19. Experts, however, say it’s challenging to use this data to draw definitive conclusions about the risks of in-person instruction, especially since many people contract the virus without showing symptoms.
In October Abbott announced eight Texas schools would get rapid coronavirus tests as part of a pilot program. Health experts have said accessible, rapid testing could help the state achieve substantive widespread COVID-19 testing.
The requests from the educator associations come as the state sees an ”unsustainable increase in hospitalizations” but no additional statewide mitigation efforts. The number of Texans hospitalized with COVID-19 and the seven-day average of new cases have nearly tripled since the beginning of October.
Disclosure: Texas Classroom Teachers Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.