COVID-19 Vaccination for Teachers: Global Implications for Reopening Schools Equitably

By now, it should come as no surprise that schools worldwide have been operating in non-traditional formats because of the COVID-19 pandemic, be that in a reduced in-person capacity, a hybrid format, or full closure. What may be surprising is the extent of the consequences of the COVID-19 disruptions and how varied, to the point of irreversible, they have been across different countries. To start, 168 million students have been out of school for over a year. It is likely many of them will never return in countries like India, where education is a path to advancement and human capital building. Data collected through the COVID-19 Global Education Recovery Tracker (GERT) show a continuing trend in school closures in parts of the world where the urgency of reopening schools and striving towards recovery is ever more pressing.

Embedded in the discourse of reopening schools is the subject of safety for students and teachers alike. In some high-income countries (HICs), such as the United States, school reopening conversations incorporate vaccinating teachers as an important point in the agenda towards returning to in-person learning.

Figure 1: The percent of countries prioritizing teacher vaccination broken down by income level. Most recent country data taken from Global Education Recovery Tracker (GERT) for countries that provided yes or no responses from Feb 26 to June 21 (2021).

The context is somewhat different in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where vaccine availability is scarce. While policies are currently focused on prioritization of key segments of the population, many institutions are calling on governments to prioritize teachers in their COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Data from Data from GERT suggests that in these settings, teachers are overwhelmingly not prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination even though many institutions call for such prioritization. This is to be expected, particularly as in countries with vaccine scarcity, prioritization conversations may be limited to health professionals or not happening at all. These dynamics are reflected across regions: countries across North America are vaccinating teachers compared only to 35% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 48% in East Asia and Pacific.

Figure 2: Breakdown of teacher vaccination as a priority group at the regional level. Regional analysis was based on whether the countries prioritized and vaccinated teachers at one point from Jan 25 to June 21 (2021) for countries that responded yes or no. Abbreviations: Africa region (AFR), East Asia and Pacific (EAP), Europe and Central Asia (ECA), Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC), Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and North America Continent (NAC) region, and, South Asia Region (SAR). Source: Global Education Recovery Tracker (GERT)
Figure 3: Most recent school status data, from Feb 26 to June 21 (2021) for countries that provided yes or no responses to whether teachers were being prioritized and vaccinated, were placed into 5 categories: No Schooling, Hybrid Learning only, In-Person Education only, Remote Education only, or a combination between any of the above known as Mixed. Hybrid learning is defined as “some grades, school, or parts of the country are using a hybrid method combing in-person learning with remote learning.” Source: Global Education Recovery Tracker (GERT)

Although vaccination of teachers should not be a prerequisite to reopen school, vaccinating teachers will help protect them from community transmission and contribute to reducing the risk of absenteeism due to COVID-19. Teacher absenteeism due to COVID-19, with teachers self-isolating if they have symptoms, or having COVID-19 can contribute to school shutdowns, or decisions to send individual classes home, and to the burnout of remaining teachers who work hard to support additional students.

While teacher vaccination helps ensure a safer environment, it is not the only answer to safely reopening schools as so much more needs to be considered. To aid in reopening schools and education recovery, UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Bank, the World Food Programme, and the UN Refugee Agency published a joint framework for reopening schools that provides high-level guidance around safe operations, stemming learning loss, ensuring the wellbeing of students and teachers, and reaching the most marginalized children. The framework is part of the Mission Recovering Education 2021 Initiative, based on a number of evidence tools, including the GERT.

While we do know that schools are not COVID-19 infection hotspots for children, and that children are more likely to be infected with COVID-19 outside of school settings, it is clear that combinations of other basic risk mitigation measures, such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and regular testing can make in-person learning environments safer. With sufficient capacity and resources, schools can successfully implement context-appropriate health and hygiene protocols. However, education systems in many LMICs lack such capacity and resources.

At the same time, school-age children and families across the world cannot afford another year of closures or hard-to-engage remote only learning modalities. Reopening schools and steps towards recovery are more crucial than ever.

Decision makers should also pay careful attention to accumulating scientific evidence which suggests that schools are not hotspots for COVID-19 transmission, independent of vaccination, in relation to emerging and dominant variants such as the Delta variant. Additionally, when COVID-19 vaccine supply increases in countries where it is currently scarce, teachers should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination. In the meantime, decision makers should invest in implementing additional COVID-19 prevention measures in schools; strive towards understanding potential teacher COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy; and continue to identify interventions that can be feasibly implemented to promote an equitable recovery process for education globally.