Teachers should get vaccine priority among essential workers

We need to get to new normal sooner, not later

THIS CURRENT SCHOOL YEAR has been challenging for all involved.  As educators, we have had to adjust and rapidly shift from managing classrooms to ensuring that our families are secure and that our students, in the middle of a global crisis, are cared for, educated, and supported.  As a school leader of a small Massachusetts charter public school, I recognize that our school reopening this fall would never have worked without our teachers’ and staff’s support and dedication.  Our doors reopened to students on August 31.  Parents were given the choice of having their children attend school in either a hybrid or fully remote model. Most chose hybrid.  However, we cannot keep our students safe if our teachers do not believe that we are keeping them safe, too.

Teachers need to be assured that they will receive top priority for vaccinations when the turn comes for essential workers. A statewide program should be readied to immunize all public school staff so that teachers can feel safe in their classrooms and students can get back to school.

I would not be so bold as to speak on behalf of school leaders across the country or those in this state.  Our small school may not be representative of most.  We are a very high performing charter public school, serving a predominantly black and brown student population with a staff that is very representative of the students and families we serve (95 percent or more students of color, 62 percent staff of color).

I also cannot speak on behalf of the thousands of teachers who have to make their own decisions about the risks they may face given the support provided to them by their leaders.  Moreover, I cannot speak on behalf of the many district and school leaders who see tragedies among students, from learning loss to unreported abuse to a noticeable increase in student suicide occurring across the country. These vulnerable children absolutely need to be under the watchful eye of their schools and classroom teachers.  Too many of the nation’s children have been isolated at home with only a distant connection to their schools, when and if they log on – too often hiding behind an avatar, or simply not on screen.

I can speak on what is needed in my building to ensure that our school community can continue to provide the care, support, and education that our students need and deserve.

I was fortunate enough to have been advised of a possible global pandemic and its magnitude as early as February 2020.  Although the prognostications were at the time unbelievable, we acted on them just in case.  By the time schools were closed in Massachusetts by order of the governor, we had a plan in place, communications to families ready, and technology configured for distribution for home use. Within days of closure across the state, we were up and running remotely with greater than 90 percent attendance and with most classes scheduled for face-to-face teaching five days per week.  We had to fully consider the impact the crisis was having on our teachers, the backbone of our school.

Our teachers have a very close relationship with students and families.  There are often daily conversations that occur as a matter of course when students are picked up or when an email about an issue is sent home. During the day, these same teachers create an environment that is so engaging that students consistently express the desire to be in school with teachers and friends, even during their summer vacation.  When the school building closed due to COVID 19, these relationships had to evolve, and they did.

Yes, the close relationships suffered during school closure last year.  However, as we reopened in the fall, we found parental support, engagement, and acknowledgment grew to the point where the school community strengthened.  Our daily attendance remains very high, and the level of learning in crucial subject areas is nearly comparable to what we have seen in a regular school year.  It is the educators who are at the heart of our school.  And as the school leader, it is my job to serve them so they can better serve our students.

 With this in mind, how can we as a Commonwealth not move our educators serving public school students to the top of the priority list for vaccinations among essential workers. Each year, more than 400,000 students in grade levels from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade rely on public schools and teachers to support many aspects of their lives.

Many parents rely on school to help support their children while they struggle daily to find their way economically and socially, especially in this time of crisis.  The foundation of the Commonwealth is its public education system and, with that, its educators.  We should prioritize educators for vaccination so we can stabilize our public schools sooner rather than later.

As a school leader, I know what we need to serve our children – if only I could get the state’s powers to realize that we need public education to get back to near normal sooner than later.  And with that, we need our teachers, our educators, our support staff, to be first in line along with other “essential workers.”

Our students need to be in school. Our teachers need to feel safe. Our state leaders need to launch a mass vaccination program for public school educators and staff across the Commonwealth.

Sherley Bretous is the executive director of the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge. Bretous has been a member of the Banneker school community for 25 years, serving as a classroom teacher, curriculum director, and deputy director. The Banneker is a pre-K through sixth grade charter public school serving 350 students that is celebrating its 25th year educating Massachusetts children.