Editorial: To get vaccine priority, teachers should agree to return to the classroom

A close-up of gloved hands holding a syringe and vial of vaccine.
A COVID-19 vaccine is prepared in Los Angeles.
(Los Angeles Times)

The number of coronavirus cases is inching down, a positive if tenuous sign. So are hospitalization rates, including at intensive care units. As sloppy as the vaccination rollout has been, thousands of doses are administered every day. And teachers have been given high priority in California for those inoculations, although in Los Angeles and many other counties they’re still waiting their turn.

Strange to say, however, even vaccination isn’t enough to make some teachers unions ready to return to physical classrooms. Educators in the Los Angeles teachers union say they want to see coronavirus infection rates drop significantly in communities served by L.A. Unified before they return. Similarly, the San Francisco teachers union is insisting that all areas of the city be in the low-risk orange zone for at least two weeks before any schools reopen, the San Francisco Chronicle says. The news outlet reports that certain unions are asking for measures that even some health experts say aren’t necessary.

One source of concern: Although the vaccines were found in clinical trials to drastically reduce the risk of illness, it’s not entirely clear whether they prevent the vaccinated person from infecting someone else — such as members of their households. That’s why vaccinated people should continue to wear masks in public. Most viral vaccines reduce the risk of transmission, but it’s still an open question for the new COVID-19 inoculations.

It seems as though the goal keeps getting moved. Early on, it was to reduce the chances of transmission to teachers, with protective measures such as masks and fewer kids in classrooms; then it was to protect teachers altogether with vaccination. Both are worth doing. And Gov. Gavin Newsom was right to give teachers priority, although the vaccination rollout has been so disorganized that it’s unclear whether a teacher who needs the vaccine to return to the classroom is receiving it ahead of, say, 65-year-olds who are healthy and able to stay at home.

There is no way to get the risk to zero, whether in school or outside it. In fact, both anecdotes and data have shown that transmission is not a real problem at schools even without vaccinated teachers and that there is more danger of catching an infection in the community than on campus.


It’s time to begin the planning for reopening schools. Not that they could or should be opened right now. But they should reopen once conditions allow.

Kids are suffering under remote learning academically, physically and emotionally. The rules for returning to school should be based on what scientists say, not on what teachers say. And any teachers who are unwilling to commit to a return to classroom teaching should not receive priority for vaccination unless they qualify for other reasons. The supply of vaccine is precious and too low as it is. Staying at home does not put anyone at special risk.