Fort Wayne Journal Gazette: Make teachers priority for vaccine

The following op-ed appeared in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette on December 6, 2020.

Thanks to the success of President Donald Trump's Operation Warp Speed, a vaccine is on the way. Now it's time for Indiana to start planning how best to distribute it.

On Nov. 20, Pfizer requested emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its candidate coronavirus vaccine. On Nov. 30, Moderna took the same step.

Both vaccines are estimated to be around 95% effective, and if the FDA authorizes them, they will be ready for mass distribution by early 2021.

When the time comes, most everyone agrees Indiana's 370,370 health care workers should and will have the option to be vaccinated first. But it's equally important for our roughly 59,863 public school teachers and school support staff to be second in line. Immunizing them will ensure that our schools stay open and our kids stay healthy.


Southwest Allen County's middle and high schools closed from Nov. 9 to Jan. 5, and some Marion County schools are expected to remain closed until mid-January. Indiana schools aren't closing again because of coronavirus outbreaks in classrooms. In fact, nationwide, children are more likely to be infected with coronavirus outside of school than in.

Indiana schools have been forced to close by staffing shortages caused by exposure to the virus. The sooner teachers and school staff can get access to a vaccine, the sooner we can stop worrying about school shutdowns.

Unfortunately, there's reason to worry. In July, I outlined some of the known pitfalls of remote learning, and since then, it's become even more clear: Teachers' work is essential to students' well-being.

When schools shut down, children's education gains tanked, with F's rising by 83% in some districts. Among children who receive mental health care, 35% rely exclusively on schools. Remote learning has left many of them feeling isolated and alone without access to mental health care – a heart-wrenching situation. And school closures have been extremely strenuous for the 12% of American families with only working parents and no in-home caretaker options.

For these reasons, and more, both UNICEF and the America Academy of Pediatrics have called for safe in-person instruction.

Relative to adults, children are not as threatened by coronavirus infection. For those younger than 18, it's about as dangerous as the flu. But they rely on educators to meet their health needs, to learn and ultimately to grow into healthy and happy adults. Every day spent out of the classroom makes that more difficult.

That's why Dr. Tony GiaQuinta, former president of the Indiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told me that for some children, “absence from school will be the biggest health threat they ever face.”

The Indiana State Department of Health has issued guidance telling schools to “remain open to in-person instruction at all levels as conditions permit.” So far, the department of health has done an admirable job keeping children in school. Going forward, it should continue to protect our children's health by prioritizing teachers and all school workers' health.

To best fight against the coronavirus, we need teachers fighting, safely, in person and on the front line.

Republican Jim Banks represents Indiana's 3rd District in Congress.

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