Editorial: Gov. Brown must ensure teachers’ vaccines lead to schools reopening

By The Oregonian Editorial Board

Gov. Kate Brown defended her decision to prioritize teachers for the COVID-19 vaccine as one of the tough calls she’s had to make amid a vaccine shortage.

Reopening schools is paramount and necessitates immunizing educators, she said, pointing out the many shortcomings of remote learning, the social isolation students are experiencing and the urgency of the waning school year. And so, in a bold move that deviates from federal guidance, Brown put vaccines for teachers before older Oregonians, even though seniors account for more than 80% of the state’s COVID-related deaths.

As understandably angry as seniors are, Brown can make a case for delaying their immunizations to support the imperative of reopening schools. But her justification for this extraordinary decision falls apart if schools across the state don’t actually reopen – a significant concern as some teachers unions question returning to in-person instruction.

Unfortunately, Brown already appears to be disavowing responsibility for ensuring schools reopen. With educators receiving vaccines now, Oregonians should expect and demand that she deliver. A failure on Brown’s part would be an unconscionable betrayal of the hundreds of thousands of seniors who are being forced to wait in service of a greater good.

While we disagree with the decision to postpone vaccines for older Oregonians, whose vulnerability merits prioritization, the die has been cast. We also believe schools can reopen safely even without vaccines, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reaffirmed last week, but recognize the political necessity of vaccinations to get schools open.

Earmarking vaccines for educational staff was a direct response to teachers’ insistence that they be vaccinated before returning to in-person instruction. But it wasn’t Brown’s only action to encourage schools to reopen. Health metrics that were mandatory before schools could reopen are now advisory. Her education department issued new guidance for reopening, including extensive resources on how to offer instruction outdoors to limit spread. These are critical moves that recognize the urgency of getting students back into schools to meet their educational, social, health and many other needs.

But Brown has taken a hands-off approach to the brewing conflicts between school districts and their teachers unions, who are balking at returning to the classroom even with vaccines.

In Portland, where the state’s largest school district aims to reopen broadly for instruction in April, the teachers union president suggests teachers’ immunizations aren’t enough.

“Our schools will be safe to open when our communities are safe,” Elizabeth Thiel, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board. She declined to specify what would constitute “safe,” but noted that increasing community vaccination rates and fewer cases would help establish that baseline.

Teachers are concerned that, even vaccinated, they could spread the virus, potentially infecting any vulnerable people they live with or care for, she said. They worry that students could bring the virus home, with dire impacts on Black, Indigenous and other communities of color that show greater COVID-19 vulnerability, Thiel said. And despite the CDC’s recent statement, she maintains there’s still too many unknowns about the virus.

The ability of teachers to block reopening needs Brown’s involvement. Buther spokesman, Charles Boyle, said in an email that solutions for reopening schools are “complex conversations that must be resolved between school districts and local associations at the local level.” He added that the governor is “open to using every tool she has to get our kids back into the classroom this school year.”

While the details of reopenings are best managed by school communities, whether they open should not be in question. As for what tools might Brown use? Boyle did not respond.

Here are a few: Brown can start by publicly calling on teachers unions to commit to reopening schools this year, even if that means extending the year into the summer. She can ask teachers who have no intention of returning to the classroom to delay their vaccines and free up doses for those who will. She and the Legislature should also explore what legal tools they have to require vaccinated staff to return to the classroom. And she should remind them of how many essential workers in food processing plants, grocery stores, social service organizations and more have been going to work without the benefit of a vaccine because that’s what being an essential worker means.

The governor alone made the decision to vaccinate teachers in order to open schools. She must now own the responsibility of getting it done.

Because no matter how justifiable the reason to prioritize teachers, Brown opted to sell out older Oregonians. She should not sell out younger Oregonians as well.

-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board

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