Long-term statewide recovery from the coronavirus pandemic hinges on the scale and success of vaccination. MSEA advocates for vaccination as a critical part of the framework to safely and sustainably return to in-person instruction. President Biden has prioritized the re-opening of schools for in-person instruction, but he recognizes that opportunity for vaccination is just one part of the necessary preparations to do so in a safe manner.
As we continue to look forward to the day when we can return to our classrooms and schools, 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) for the process of distributing the supply of vaccine, identifying priority order to receive it, and making it possible for those people to be inoculated. Here is what educators can expect in terms of distribution and when to hear more information.
On the morning of December 14, the first coronavirus vaccines in the U.S. were administered, providing a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. The CDC established the priority order for vaccination. An unpredictable supply of vaccine has followed, with far fewer doses being distributed to states than governors expected.
As of February, Maryland is receiving 10,000 doses per week for 2 million people eligible. A Johnson & Johnson single-injection vaccine is reportedly close to approval, which would join the two vaccines in circulation from Moderna and Pfizer. The latter two require two doses, approximately 28 days apart for full efficacy, and the availability of second doses has now slowed new inoculations.
Education employees are currently eligible for the vaccine as part of the Health Department’s vaccination plan Phase 1B, but the availability of the vaccine has been completely unreliable and variable from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Despite this, the state has expanded the groups who are eligible to receive the vaccine although the supply the state is receiving is nowhere near what is needed to vaccinate eligible groups. MSEA will continue to advocate for accelerated availability of the vaccine to educators. The latest vaccination updates are available on the state website and county health department sites.
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 to the list of mandatory vaccines for students. The General Assembly may pass laws to require vaccinations for school employees and other employee groups, but none have been proposed so far concerning the coronavirus. MSEA will monitor all legislation and expects that such a requirement would have some opt-out provisions, such as for disabilities 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.
The state’s GoVax campaign includes a major outreach component to promote and allay suspicions about the vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, strongly defended the vaccine development process in an interview with the Black Coalition Against COVID. Fauci 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. Fauci has said the speed at which the vaccine was developed did not compromise integrity of the final product, and the development was possible because of advances in vaccine technology. Safety of the vaccine is determined by an independent board before the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) review, not the pharmaceutical manufacturer, he said, and experienced career scientists at the FDA examine the data also before deeming safety and efficacy.
Howard University President and surgeon Dr. Wayne Frederick also endorses vaccination, and he joined MSEA’s Educate at 8 on January 13 to discuss his support for the vaccine. NEA President Becky Pringle has 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. While vaccines can play a large role in mitigating the spread of the virus, they are not a standalone silver bullet to immediately ending the pandemic. Educators should still form teams in their buildings and go through MSEA’s Health and Safety Checklist for Buildings and Workspaces to assess safety conditions and make sure that any outstanding safety issues are resolved.