The 1 Thing Teachers Can Do to Protect Students

It’s time to go back to school, and to offer students the safest possible return.

Illustration of an apple covered in "I got my COVID-19 vaccine" stickers
Getty ; The Atlantic

The American public-education system exists at the intersection of E pluribus unum and “in loco parentis,” and is built on the understanding that an educated populace is integral to a functioning democracy. As teachers, we sacrifice bits of our freedom in service of this cause because we care, rhetorically and literally, for our students. We were fingerprinted and subjected to background checks and a tuberculosis test to get hired. We regularly give personal time to plan lessons, grade assignments, and meet with students and families; we come in early and stay late to support students with extra needs or packed schedules. We have counseled many students through fights with parents, breakups with significant (and not-so-significant) others, the college-application process, and job decisions.

Last August, we argued to move teaching online in New York City and even said we’d strike to make that happen. With rising cases, hospitalizations, and deaths; vaccines that had only begun large-scale trials; and little clarity regarding safety measures in our schools, we felt that the sacrifices leaders were asking us to make were too steep.

This fall, however, presents a different situation. Although cases are on the rise once again and we firmly believe that continued mitigation measures like masking are necessary, we face this school year with a readily accessible, highly effective, and safe vaccine. It’s time to go back to school, and to offer students the safest possible return. Every teacher who is medically able should be immunized against COVID-19, and districts should implement mandates to ensure that they are.

What we are advocating for is neither novel nor revolutionary: Public schools have long served as the loci of initiatives intended to serve the needs of the collective. During the pandemic of the early 1900s, teachers and students pulled on their coats and wrapped themselves in heavy blankets to attend outdoor classes designed to limit transmission of the flu. In the 1950s, almost 2 million public-school students across the country became test subjects in the large-scale trial of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, administered in schools, with educators serving as logistical support.

Schools today are deeply involved in children’s health. School nurses conduct vision and hearing screenings; teachers receive yearly training to support students who have medical needs such as diabetes and severe allergies. Some districts, including ours in New York City, have even established community schools that have medical professionals and facilities on-site, and partner with local organizations to ensure that students have the resources they need for their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Today, immunization requirements are the rule, not the exception, for many students to even set foot in school buildings. New York public schools have required vaccines against such diseases as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, poliomyelitis, hepatitis B, varicella, and meningococcal disease for student attendance for decades. None of these requirements has led to a backlash, so why would masks and COVID-19 vaccines cause, as one school leader said in Wisconsin, a “slippery slope”? Families are assured that their children will likely avoid exposure to measles. Why should they be asked to treat COVID-19 differently, given that we have easy access to a vaccine that is all but guaranteed to limit spread and prevent severe illness?

Some educators are arguing that mandatory vaccination is a violation of freedom and bodily integrity. However, as anyone who had a good civics or constitutional-law teacher could tell you, even our most vital rights have limits. Many political theorists—egalitarians such as John Rawls, ardent libertarians such as Robert Nozick, Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and contract theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke—agree that the government has one essential function: to protect us from physical harm. Many students are too young to receive a vaccine. For the government to protect our children’s right to a public education, we are required to, at times, subjugate our liberty interests to the more important interests of our society.

The most compelling case for a vaccine requirement for educators is a moral one: What do we owe our students? Like it or not, the work of a teacher is inextricable from caretaking. We are responsible for other people’s children for most of their waking hours every day, and we do many things in service of that obligation. Active-shooter and evacuation drills, mandated reporting of suspected child abuse, and even everyday tasks as simple as taking attendance help us ensure that students are safe. They are, among other reasons, why families trust us with their children. Widespread vaccination will protect students, particularly those who are too young to be vaccinated, with little risk of serious harm to anyone involved. How in good conscience can we refuse this opportunity?

Personally, we have mixed feelings about returning to school. We know the joy of a busy classroom, and we know that many will benefit from the structure and socialization that come with learning in a shared space with their peers. At the same time, as cases rise, we sympathize with students and teachers who have experienced devastating loss in the past 20 months and feel anxious about returning. We have to implement commonsense safety measures, like mask and vaccine mandates, and clear, consistent protocols for dealing with COVID-19 cases in schools to help us ensure that students’ and families’ fears are abated. Our biggest concern is that wishful thinking, along with political pressure, will cloud leaders’ judgment, leaving us unprepared to reopen safely. In New York City, just weeks before our planned first day of school, we have few agreed-upon policies and a mayor who continues to insist that there will be no remote option, despite the demand from families and the obvious need for one when (not if) students are asked to quarantine.

For teachers like us in New York City, as in countless other districts across the country, the school year looms large, and many still have more questions than answers about what lies ahead. With so much uncertainty, we have no choice but to rely on one part of the pandemic that is certain: The vaccines provide protection against the virus; for us, and our students, COVID-19 vaccinations are the least we can do to continue the care work to which we’ve committed our lives. Inoculation alone isn’t a guarantee that our children and families will have the safe public education that they deserve, but—without question—we owe it to them, and to one another, to try.