How clashes over COVID safety are driving educators to the breaking point

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona repeated his support for making COVID vaccines mandatory in K-12 schools
By: | September 24, 2021

Administrators and educators say they are under siege by both the public and political leaders as they mandate masks and set other policies to block the spread of COVID in their classrooms.

A new DeSantis Administration rule allowing Florida students designated as close contacts to stay in school if they are asymptomatic could drive teachers away from the profession, says Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association union.

There were nearly 9,000 vacancies advertised in Florida schools in August, with about 5,000 of those being for teachers. The new rule interferes with teachers’ ability to provide students with a high-quality and safe public education, Spar said.

“Certainly any move that threatens the safety of students and school employees may cause more teachers to leave the profession,” he said. “There were severe shortages before COVID, but the pandemic has made it even more difficult to retain and recruit school employees.”

Across the country, school board members have received threats of violence both in-person and online as they have been developing school reopening policies this summer and fall. Two leading professional organizations—AASA (The School Superintendents Association) and the National School Boards Association—issued a dire warning this week about the escalating tensions.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact everyone, we are concerned with the increasing reports of our members—school superintendents and school board members—who are working to ensure a safe reopening of schools while addressing threats and violence, and being undermined by those who do not agree with their school guidelines for COVID-19 best practices,” the associations said in a joint statement. “School leaders across the country are facing threats because they are simply trying to follow the health and scientific safety guidance issued by federal, state and local health policy experts.”

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of AASA, added that this organization staunchly defends freedom of speech but will not “tolerate aggression, intimidation, threats and violence toward superintendents, board members and educators.”

“Leading these schools during a global pandemic is an enormous task, one that is unnecessarily complicated when adult tempers flare,” Domenech said. “The work to open schools and the discussions at school board meetings are focused on a goal we all support: getting and keeping our kids safe in school.”

School board members are being guided by health experts in tracking state and local caseloads and vaccination rates, added Chip Slaven, interim executive director and CEO of the school boards association.

“School board members are our neighbors. They attend our churches and shop at our grocery stores. They have children in the public education system and share the same concerns as the communities they represent,” Slaven said. “But for their hard work, school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers and others who work in service to our students are being subjected to online and in-person threats, abuse and harassment.”

School board members are used to heated meetings around issues such as hiring a superintendent, passing the budget or redistricting, said Viola M. Garcia, president of the school boards association and a trustee of Aldine ISD in Houston.

“Disagreements and heated opinions are OK. Shouting contests, harassment, abuse and threats—both online and in-person—are absolutely not,” Garcia said. “School board members want to hear from the communities they serve, especially during this critical moment in the pandemic. But community input must remain respectful and civil, even if it is in opposition.”

Only a handful of districts, mostly in California, have so far mandated vaccines for eligible students. But on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona repeated his support for making COVID vaccines mandatory in K-12 schools, according to published reports.

He had previously expressed support for mandatory vaccinations in August.

Cardona is encouraging state governors to enact mandates for students now that the vaccines are FDA approved, the secretary told Politico during his back-to-school tour.

“There’s a reason why we’re not talking about measles today,” Cardona told Politico. “It was a required vaccination, and we put it behind us. So I do believe at this point we need to be moving forward.”

Masks are making a big difference

Despite some parents’ and politicians’ angry resistance to mandates, more and more evidence is showing masks are preventing the spread of COVID among children.

In Colorado, COVID case rates have been significantly lower in schools that require masks, State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said.

Data show that case rates in masking and n0n-masking districts through the end of the 2020-21 school year as cases dropped. But among schools that opened in mid-August as the delta variant exploded, cases rates have been far lower in districts with mask mandates, Herlihy said.

“We’re continuing to encourage parents to have children wear masks at school even if not required, but also outside of schools masks continue to be important especially for kids who are not yet vaccinated,” Herlihy said.

Not surprisingly, case rates among kids are also lower in Colorado counties with higher vaccination rates.