Education

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CDC Says Teachers Don't Need Vaccines For Schools To Reopen Safely

Schools are facing increasing pressure to reopen classrooms to in-person learning.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky has said schools can safely reopen without teachers being vaccinated against COVID. The health agency's latest update comes as schools across the country grapple with how and when to return students to traditional classroom settings amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

"Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools," Walensky said Wednesday during a White House press briefing on COVID-19.

Walensky said that although the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices had classified teachers and education support staff as "frontline workers" recommended to be vaccinated during the 1b phase of the vaccines' rollout, data suggested the vaccination of teachers wasn't absolutely necessary for reopening.

"I want to be very clear about schools, which is: Yes, ACIP has put teachers in the 1b category, the category of essential workers," Walensky said. "But I also want to be clear that there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely."

While Walensky didn't get specific about which data she was referring to, a CDC study released in January found minimal transmission of COVID at reopened schools where proper precautions, such as face masks, were being taken. In fact, in commentary published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), CDC researchers concluded there had been "little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission."

But teacher vaccinations have become a central topic in the debate about how to reopen schools. And some teachers' unions — including the California Teachers Association — have made them a key element to educators' eventual return to the classroom. In a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the California Teachers Association deemed vaccines for educators and school employees "a key element to safe in-person school reopening."

Across the country, the Chicago Teachers Union has also stressed teachers should be vaccinated before they are forced to return to in-person learning models. The Chicago Teachers Union is currently locked in tense reopening negotiations with Chicago Public Schools.

On Wednesday, members of the White House's COVID-19 Response Team were careful to stress, however, that it was imperative for schools to have adequate equipment and resources before reopening. Jeff Zients, the head of President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 task force, called on Congress to pass the American Rescue Plan, noting it would provide all schools with funding to enable smaller, socially distant classes and ensure, among other things, that schools have PPE, proper sanitization, and ventilation.

"President Biden has been very clear that he wants schools to reopen, and actually to stay open, and that means that every school has the equipment and the resources to open safely," Zients said at Wednesday's briefing.