By Maria Caspani and Brendan O’Brien
NEW YORK (Reuters) – For New York City high school teacher Rebecca Crawford, receiving the coronavirus vaccine meant taking the first concrete step towards seeing her students in person again, after an uncertain year that she spent mostly teaching online.
On Wednesday afternoon, Crawford, 39, was administered the first dose of a two-shot COVID-19 vaccine at Kings County Hospital in the borough of Brooklyn, days after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo opened up inoculations for teachers.
“For so long,” Crawford told Reuters shortly after being vaccinated, “there’s nothing that felt concrete that I could do to get to see my students.”
Crawford is one of the lucky ones. Across the country, many teachers, including those in neighboring New Jersey, are still not eligible to receive the vaccine. The lack of a federal blueprint for mass inoculation has left individual states to decide who gets the shots and when.
It is yet another example of the unevenness that has long characterized the national effort to tackle the pandemic. Many of the 50 million public students in the United States are still taking their classes online, almost a year after the virus shut down schools nationwide.
While teachers in some states wait to be vaccinated, some of them say they are being pressured to return to the classroom during a surge in COVID-19 infections. In Chicago, where teachers are not getting vaccinated yet, the powerful teachers union is pushing back against the district requiring teachers to return to classrooms as it gradually reopens school buildings.
“Teachers may get their vaccines, but our family members may not be getting them as early as we will. That is why we need a safe reopening plan,” Chicago kindergarten teacher Nicole Flores, 28, said.
In one New Jersey district, educators holding signs that read “First vaccinate then return” staged a walkout on Wednesday, the first day of in-person instruction there, saying they are concerned that the reopening was premature and dangerous.
“We cannot help but feel that we are entering into a situation of very real danger, to ourselves and colleagues, and to our students and their families,” Rocio Lopez, the president of the South Orange-Maplewood Education Association said in a statement.
Lopez said she would urge local health authorities to postpone in-person education until vaccines are “amply available.”
In New York, some teachers who are grateful to be getting vaccinated are also concerned that inoculations alone won’t make classrooms safe again.
“I cried when I made the appointment,” said Sari Rosenberg, a New York high school teacher who is scheduled to receive the vaccine next week, describing her anticipation.
At the same time, Rosenberg said, she feared classrooms would remain a fertile breeding ground for COVID-19 as her teenaged students were not yet eligible for the vaccine and could take the virus home to their families and vulnerable members of their communities.
In-person education has resumed for some in New York City public schools and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week he was eager to get more children back in the classroom.
Scientists say more data is needed before we can know whether individuals who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus. Health officials have urged the public to stick with mitigation measures such mask-wearing and social distancing, at least for a few months.
Regardless of access, some educators – like many members of the public – are hesitant about getting inoculated, expressing concerns about the vaccine’s safety.
“The vaccination was put together a little too quickly for me,” said Rochell Wallace-Haley, a 37-year-old Milwaukee seventh-grade special education teacher who does not plan to get inoculated. “I believe that it is still in the experimental stage right now and I don’t want to be part of that experiment.”
Milwaukee schools are currently offering remote learning only. In the next month, the district’s school board is expected to decide whether to send students back to classrooms. Teachers in the Wisconsin city could begin getting vaccinated within weeks.
Even though Wallace-Haley is not willing to get vaccinated, she is still eager to get back into the classroom.
“I would be willing to put on a gas mask and wear a suit because I’m not working for a paycheck, I’m working because it is my passion,” she said.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Daniel Wallis)