By Eric Wolf Welch
Pop quiz: Which place in Virginia has stronger Covid-19 safety protocols — a public school or a state prison? If you answered a state prison, you are correct! And if you think that is crazy, then you understand why I am writing this.
I am a public school teacher in Fairfax County.
In recent days, over 2,000 students and faculty have packed into my overcrowded school and thousands of other students and teachers will be fully back in crowded schools across our region.
The number of daily infections for the state and across counties in our region is higher right now than one year ago, when we were told to stay home and do school online. We have a vaccine that could prevent the infection from spreading, but we won’t require that vaccine to be taken by those going into schools. Something is wrong with this.
We need our children to be back in school. I will be the first to say that. Our students need in-person learning and not sitting in front of computer screens. Yet, we have a responsibility to do this in as safe a manner as possible. So why will we not require our schools’ employees and students over 12 to be vaccinated?
United Airlines, Google, Facebook, Walmart, Disney, The Washington Post, the states of Virginia, Maryland, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, the federal government, and hundreds of colleges — all of these employers and many others are requiring vaccines (and since this was written, more may be added to this list).
The NFL has essentially done everything but demand its players and team personnel get vaccinated, threatening lost pay if games are forfeited due to Covid infections. Yet, we won’t take such steps to protect the children and employees in our schools?
The idea that we are going to “strongly encourage” students and school staff to get vaccinated is like me strongly encouraging my students to write an essay. Without any accountability, despite how much I tell students it’s important for them to become good writers, many of my students will not voluntarily do that essay. Without any accountability on the minority of school employees and students who still are not vaccinated (for whatever reason), they will not get vaccinated.
Our schools will become a prime location for spreading the virus, and children, their families, and teachers will be the targets.
We already require a long list of vaccines to attend a public school and to be a school employee. The Fairfax County Public Schools webpage on mandatory vaccines for school attendance lists eight required vaccines. The argument that we can’t legally require the Covid vaccine for school attendance and employment is not correct and those who use that excuse are risking the health of our children and teachers and allowing the virus an opportunity to spread in our community.
I am sure school leaders who read this will claim with school having opened, logistically it’s impossible to now implement such a requirement. It is never too late to do the right thing. Schools may need to open with not everyone vaccinated, but it does not need to continue to be that way through the fall and the rest of the school year, and as the Delta variant has illustrated, Covid is not going away.
Establish a reasonable date, such as mid-September, for all students over 12 and employees to prove they’ve gotten their first shot (with exemptions for health conditions and religious reasons). With the vaccine available in multiple locations, with clinics at our schools and other public facilities, families and employees can get their vaccine within a month. It’s interesting how accountability can motivate people.
And what if many parents refuse to have their child vaccinated? What if an employee refuses to be vaccinated? They can have that choice. Do exactly what all those employers and governments mentioned above are doing — require unvaccinated people to provide regularly a negative Covid test. Some may scoff at this, but why is it okay for all the places listed above to have these requirements to keep people safe, but we won’t require the same standards of safety for our schools?
Something is wrong with our society if we don’t make it a priority that our schools are safe. While our prisons, airlines, amusement parks, business offices, colleges, and professional sports leagues need to be safe, so too do our schools. If anything, our schools should be on the top of that list.
Eric Wolf Welch is a public school teacher in Fairfax County.