Teachers unions back vaccine, but say it’s not a cure-all

Ohio’s two large teachers unions are encouraging most of their members to get the COVID-19 vaccine when they’re eligible, but they say that move won’t end school safety concerns tied to the virus.

Gov. Mike DeWine said teachers and other school staff will be eligible for the vaccine Feb. 1 as long as their schools have agreed to go back to full in-person or hybrid learning by March 1. Most Dayton-area school districts are already in-person or hybrid, and others have plans to return before that date.

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Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro said vaccination of teachers and school staff is a positive step, but it doesn’t mean everything goes back to normal and safe.

“It’s not a panacea, and there’s still going to be a need for continuation of mask-wearing and social distancing and sanitizing and all of the other protocols that the CDC has recommended to keep people safe,” DiMauro said.

The vaccine is given in two doses, 3-4 weeks apart. Health officials say one week after receiving the second dose, a COVID-exposed person should be about 95% protected from getting sick from the virus.

CDC officials say they don’t know yet to what extent vaccinated people can carry the virus and spread it to others, hence the continued need for masks and distancing for now. And not everyone in schools will get the vaccine, including the thousands of students, as the vaccine is not approved for them.

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Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said schools considering whether to be in-person or not should consider the school’s ability to do proper social distancing, what percentage of school employees get vaccinated, community spread in the local area and testing capacity.

All counties in the Dayton area are currently at the red level of the state’s health advisory system, and Public Health Dayton & Montgomery County calls it a “school district decision” whether to stay open when in red status. They recommend in-person school at the lower levels, and remote-only school at the highest purple level.

Cropper worried that vaccine arrival, combined with Ohio’s new quarantine rules for schools, which are more lax than CDC guidelines, could lead some to let their guard down.

“We’ve heard troubling anecdotes of schools considering relaxing other precautions,” she said. “Schools are safe only when protocols are followed.”

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In late December, DeWine announced that students and teachers closely exposed to a COVID-positive person in the classroom no longer have to quarantine if all were wearing masks. He cited a preliminary evaluation of limited Ohio data suggesting that virus transmission in that situation was no greater than for those farther away.

Cropper thinks that sends the wrong message to school districts.

“We’re concerned that this change is being made just as a new, more infectious strain of the disease is appearing across the country, while the data used to justify this decision was gathered before this strain was present,” she said.

State officials and teachers union leaders agree that getting back to in-person learning is critical for student academic success and social development.

DeWine’s office is pushing the in-person education side, pointing to a national study that says students lost months of educational progress last spring. The study does not address more recent results. Some advocates of in-person classes have blamed teachers unions for delaying a return to school buildings.

DiMauro said it’s about finding the right balance, saying “there is nothing we want more than to be in our classrooms with our students.”

“Kids can’t learn if they’re not safe. And safe working and learning conditions are a fundamental responsibility that we have as a union, and every school district has for its employees and students,” he said. “Of course I would disagree with the argument that teachers unions are preventing schools from being open. What’s happening is that unsafe conditions in some cases are preventing schools from being open.”

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