Long-term statewide recovery from the coronavirus pandemic hinges on the timing and success of vaccinations. As we continue to look forward to the day when we can return to our classrooms and schools safely and sustainably, educators need to know where they fit into the coronavirus vaccination schedule. Like all states, Maryland is taking cues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), preparing for the process of distributing the supply of vaccine, identifying who will receive it first, and making it possible for those people to be inoculated. Plans are continuing to develop, but here is what educators can expect in terms of distribution and when to expect to hear more information.
On the morning of December 14, the first coronavirus vaccines in the U.S. were administered, providing a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. These vaccines followed action the week before by an independent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee to grant emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s vaccine and a recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which advises the CDC. With FDA approval, vaccines began to ship across the country. Other companies will follow this same process to get more vaccines approved and distributed.
The ACIP voted earlier to recommend to the CDC that it place in their guidance to states that the top priority for the first wave of vaccinations be healthcare workers and the elderly in long-term care facilities. President-elect Joe Biden has indicated educators might become a priority in the spring, as he would like to see schools reopen by the end of his first 100 days. Nationally, healthcare workers and long-term care residents include nearly 24 million people, according to the ACIP. The CDC will continue to make priority designations and provide guidance to states. Ultimately, the states make the decision on how and to whom the vaccines are dispensed before it is widely and generally available.
The delivery of coronavirus vaccine has gone much slower than anticipated, but educators have been moved up to be eligible sooner than originally laid out in the October Maryland COVID-19 Vaccination Plan. Distribution Phase 1A is underway, vaccinating health care workers, first responders, and those living in long-term care, a total of more than 500,000 people. Phase 1B will include people in assisted living and other congregate settings, educators, child-care workers, people responsible for the continuity of government, and people 75 and older. Anticipating a potential to vaccinate more than 10,000 people per day, Gov. Hogan said that Phase 1B may begin at the end of January. The latest vaccination updates are available on the state website.
There is nothing in current Maryland statute that requires vaccinations for education employees. There are vaccination requirements for students in statute, but a coronavirus vaccine for children is only in the early stages of development and obviously not an existing statutory requirement for students. The legislature, however, may add specific vaccines to the list of mandatory vaccines for students. The General Assembly can pass laws to require vaccinations for school employees and other employee groups. MSEA expects that such a requirement would have some opt out provisions, such as for health and religious considerations.
Generally, the answer to this question is yes. However, because statutes require public school employers to bargain with the exclusive bargaining representative regarding working conditions, such a requirement would arguably have to be negotiated.
In any discussion surrounding this topic, there would most likely be exemptions from a vaccine mandate for strongly and sincerely held religious beliefs or for those employees who have a disability covered by the law so long as any exemption does not create an undue burden for the employer, understanding that an employer has a legal duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace.
Part of the state’s vaccination plan will include public outreach to allay suspicions about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine, Gov. Hogan said during a December 8 press conference. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), strongly defended the vaccine development process in a recent interview with the Black Coalition Against COVID. Fauci shared that he respected the suspicions that exist in the Black community, rooted in historic injustices, and lamented that the coronavirus is disproportionately harming people of color across a range of metrics. He said the speed at which the vaccine was developed did not compromise integrity of the final product and was possible because of advances in vaccine technology. Safety is determined by an independent board before the FDA review, not the pharmaceutical manufacturer, he said, and experienced career scientists at the FDA also examined the data before deeming safety and efficacy.
In a recent statement, NEA President Becky Pringle underscored the importance of building trust in the vaccine in communities of color and the need to recognize present and historic abuses and suffering: “We urge the CDC and other governmental agencies to use consistent and transparent communications on the benefits and safety of vaccines, and that they explicitly recognize the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Native, Black and Latinx communities. Vaccine distribution planning and evidence-based campaigns must specifically address the disproportionate suffering and historical abuses in communities of color. As leaders in our communities, NEA, our members and affiliates will partner with civic organizations, community leaders and families to share relevant and scientifically-sound information on vaccines to help promote use among communities of color.”
An effective vaccine is a positive development during the coronavirus pandemic and yet not reason to let down our guard. Inequity in education continues, has worsened during the pandemic, and demands that we approach recovery from it through the lens of equity and fully funding the programs, such as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, that will directly impact the speed and comprehensiveness of our recovery from the pandemic, particularly among the disproportionately Black and Brown families harmed by the pandemic and the widening gap of educational inequity.