As school year nears, calls grow for a vaccine mandate for teachers

Nationally, teachers unions are opposed to vaccine mandates unless they are negotiated

By: - August 6, 2021 7:05 am

The new mandate has the support of the state’s teachers unions. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

With school set to start in-person in most New Jersey districts in a month, superintendents are busy announcing all the safety measures they hope will keep COVID-19 away and prevent a return to remote learning.

Largely missing from that messaging is any report on how many teachers are still not vaccinated — and whether they will be required to do so.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, represents about 170,000 teachers and school support staff but doesn’t track how many have been vaccinated, spokesman Steve Baker said.

Parents like Krista Gervon, of Lawrenceville in Mercer County, say schools should track and be more transparent about how many — and which — teachers remain unvaccinated.

“I honestly think that parents should know if their child’s teacher is vaccinated. Everyone’s talking about whether it should be up to the parents to decide whether to mask their child. But it should also be up to the parents to decide if they want their child to be in a classroom with an unvaccinated teacher, especially if masks are not going to be required,” said Gervon.

Her three children are 9, 5, and 4, too young to get a vaccine. A teacher’s decision whether or not to get the shot does not just impact the teacher, Gervon noted.

“This is a disease that is transmissible through the air, so a teacher’s personal choice affects everyone in the vicinity that they are,” she said.

Nationally, unions say a majority of teachers surveyed have been inoculated against COVID-19. Both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), which together represent nearly 5 million educators, polled members in March and May and found that 81% to 86% had either been fully vaccinated or had appointments to get shots.

As the first day of school approaches, parents and public leaders alike have been calling for a vaccine mandate for teachers. In Jersey City, Councilman James Solomon on Monday urged the city’s leaders to require all public school and municipal employees to get vaccines, or submit to weekly testing. Because vaccines take a few weeks to be fully effective, now is the time teachers and school staff who haven’t gotten shots would need to do so to be fully immune by the time students return.

“You don’t want a delta variant cluster or a new variant in the fall, when we are spending more time indoors,” said Solomon, who has two young children. “The last thing we want is for schools to shut down when we have the tool to prevent that, vaccines.”

Baker said the NJEA has issued no recent, specific guidance to teachers about vaccines beyond what they have always communicated — get a vaccine. The union ran ads earlier this year promoting the vaccine for teachers.

“We know that our members were very eager to have access to vaccines when they first became available, and we have been strongly advocating for both our members and the public to get them,” Baker said. “The more people who are vaccinated, the safer our schools will be. Vaccines are critical for everybody.”

Murphy team mum

Still, as the summer weeks wane, Baker acknowledged the NJEA has been “awaiting further guidance from the Murphy administration.”

Gov. Phil Murphy’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Murphy and NJEA are strong allies.

On Monday, the governor announced all healthcare and corrections staff, as well as people who work in “at-risk congregate settings,” have until Sept. 7 to get vaccinated, or face testing at least once a week. The state’s schools, which educate more than 1.4 million students, were not on his list of at-risk congregate settings.

Murphy is expected to announce Friday that all students must wear masks in school this fall, reversing his June decision to drop the school mask mandate. His decision came after the NJEA said they believed masks should be mandated. Murphy similarly reversed his position on in-person learning last August after the NJEA said it wanted all districts to open with remote learning.

While many education leaders agree vaccines are key to ending the pandemic, few are ready to embrace a mandate. Both the AFT and NEA have said requiring teachers to get vaccines is something that should be negotiated, though AFT President Randi Weingarten told the New York Times Thursday she is starting to warm to the idea of a mandate.

“We’ve always supported vaccinations,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. But, she added, “educators must play an active role in developing any vaccine policy in schools, colleges, and universities, including through collective bargaining where that takes place … there are often complex medical issues at play, and we don’t presume to understand them all.”

In the meantime, some schools are using an incentive approach, offering cash payments as high as $1,000 to entice teachers to get vaccinated, according to EducationWeek.

Morris County teacher Stephen Finkelstein got a vaccine as soon as he was eligible and supports a vaccine mandate. He predicts vaccine reluctance will turn out to be costly to districts, which face hiring substitutes every time a teacher gets sick and has to stay home to quarantine. He also frets vaccine resistance will cause more school shutdowns.

“Learning is such a personal thing. It’s a lot of discussion, it’s a lot of hands-on, it’s interacting one-on-one. You can’t get that through Zoom. We couldn’t even get that in hybrid with masks and desk shields,” said Finkelstein, who teaches social studies to sixth-graders at Madison Junior School. “I just want to move on. As a parent and as a teacher, I don’t want my kids to be short-changed.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.