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Opinion: Teachers and communities of color need the vaccine now, Texas



Texas – Teachers, other school staff, parents and students want nothing more than to get back to normal — back on campuses for in-school learning, recess on playgrounds, sports, after-school activities, chats in hallways and all the other things we enjoyed and took for granted until the coronavirus invaded our lives.

But getting back to normal requires a thoughtful, specific road map to give everyone involved the confidence to walk through the front doors of our public schools and feel safe. It’s been a year since the virus was detected, a year since we’ve known it is highly contagious and many months since we’ve known that important precautions work to help keep COVID-19 at bay, such as wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and maintaining stable pods of students in schools.

And now we have the COVID-19 vaccine. Distribution in Texas has been haphazard at best and downright unfair and discombobulated at worst.

The numbers tell the story of why educators and school staff here in Houston and elsewhere around the state need to be prioritized for a vaccine. Between Aug. 2 and Feb. 7, Texas Health and Human Services reported that there were 61,766 positive school staff cases. After a year of a White House administration downplaying and even ignoring the pandemic, students and educators lost precious months of “normal” education. We want schools to fully reopen when buildings are safe, educators are well protected and families trust school conditions.

Moving teachers and other school staff up to the 1B priority level is essential. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have made some or all teachers eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine. Texas is not one of them.

The most recent CDC guidelines that came out Friday provide a rigorous road map for school reopening that identify the importance of layered mitigation, including compulsory masking, 6 feet of physical distancing, handwashing, cleaning and ventilation, diagnostic testing and contact tracing. And importantly, it reinforces vaccine priority for teachers and school staff as well as emphasizing accommodations for educators with preexisting conditions and those taking care of others are risk.

Other numbers also tell the story of why our communities of color must be prioritized as well. Among the Houston Independent School District student population, about two-thirds are Hispanic/Latino and about one-quarter are Black. While the pandemic has ravaged these communities, there has been inequitable treatment and outcomes for people of color and a pervasive lack of access to the vaccine. And yes, there is still the obstacle of a lack of trust in the vaccine among communities of color, which will require a major educational effort to overcome any skepticism of the vaccine’s efficacy and safety.

The education of our children is an essential service. If we just pay lip service to this, we won’t get to where we should be in helping our children thrive and getting back to normal.

We need to fight this pandemic on all battlegrounds, and school campuses and communities of color are essential places to focus. When teachers are protected from the coronavirus, and our most vulnerable communities are adequately protected, we can win this war.