Covid-19 vaccinations should be mandatory for teachers and staff

Students+line+up+for+optional+Covid-19+testing.+As+the+virus+continues+to+spread%2C+APS+is+now+requiring+teachers+and+staff+to+undergo+surveillance+testing+twice+a+week.+While+the+move+is+a+step+in+the+right+direction%2C+more+must+be+done+to+ensure+public+safety+in+schools.

Sophia Maxim

Students line up for optional Covid-19 testing. As the virus continues to spread, APS is now requiring teachers and staff to undergo surveillance testing twice a week. While the move is a step in the right direction, more must be done to ensure public safety in schools.

Marcus Johnson

As students and teachers returned to in-person school amid rising Covid-19 cases, Atlanta Public Schools is taking measures to protect the health and safety of those at school.

As well as requiring masks and social distancing, the district has offered Covid-19 testing and vaccinations. Beginning on September 7, all school staff were required to undergo surveillance testing twice a week, as the district acknowledged the need for increased safety measures. While mandatory testing for teachers and staff is a step in the right direction, the increasing spread of the highly-contagious delta variant shows that these measures are insufficient. Mandating Covid-19 vaccinations for teachers and staff is the best way to truly protect students, teachers and staff during in-person schooling. City Schools of Decatur announced on Sep. 14 that teachers and staff in the district would be required to get vaccinated by the end of October, becoming the first school district in Georgia to mandate vaccinations for school personnel, and APS should do the same.

A vaccination mandate for teachers and staff is particularly important in elementary schools where students are too young to get vaccinated. Covid-19 cases in children have increased significantly in the past month, with over 240,000 new cases in children in the week from Sep. 2 to 9. From Sep. 4 to 10, elementary schools had the greatest number of reported school-based exposures in APS. Vaccination is a crucial factor in preventing the spread of the virus, and the district is failing to adequately protect younger children who are ineligible to be vaccinated.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, which was previously under an emergency use authorization. The move is likely to increase vaccination rates among those who were previously hesitant. FDA approval has also resulted in more vaccine mandates for employees, especially among private companies that are empowered by the FDA’s decision. Chevron, Hess, and CVS Health have since joined the growing list of companies mandating vaccinations for employees.

FDA approval has also opened the door for stricter public health mandates in schools. APS announced that Covid-19 testing would be required for teachers shortly after FDA approval, and other school districts across the country have unveiled more rigorous mandates.On the very same day FDA approval was granted to the Pfizer vaccine, New York City, home to the nation’s largest school district, announced a vaccination mandate for all public school teachers and staff as New York schools reopened on Sep. 13. Illinois issued a vaccination mandate for teachers, and Los Angeles, the second largest school district in the country, has gone a step further by mandating vaccinations for all eligible students as well. These vaccination mandates will help to prevent sharp increases in Covid-19 cases as schools across the country begin to open for the new school year, something that APS has already begun to experience without such a mandate. With FDA approval and precedent for vaccination mandates, the APS mandate for school personnel should follow. 

One major hurdle to vaccine mandates for teachers and staff is teachers’ unions. The nation’s two largest teacher’s unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have stopped short of calling for strict vaccination mandates, instead opting to support a policy that would give individuals the choice between vaccination or regular testing. However, Georgia is a “Right-to-Work” state, meaning the influence of unions is limited.

In Georgia, any vaccination mandate could also run into trouble with Gov. Brian Kemp’s May executive order, which prevents public agencies in the state from requiring proof of vaccination. Despite this order, Fulton County is considering a vaccination mandate for employees, and a number of hospital systems and private universities in Georgia have already issued mandates, as well.

On Sep. 9, President Joe Biden strengthened the support for vaccination mandates, announcing new vaccination requirements for federal employees, health care workers, and private employers with at least 100 employees. The mandate is to be enforced by the Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA), but is already facing pushback from employers and politicians across the country, including Gov. Kemp, who labeled the mandate a “blatantly unlawful overreach.” The mandate for private employers with at least 100 employees also applies to public employees in 26 states that have state-level OSHA plans, although Georgia is not one such state.

Legally, states have held the authority to mandate vaccinations for FDA-approved vaccines. Governments also have the power to mandate vaccines, even those under an emergency use authorization, if acting as employers. Therefore, city and state governments already have the legal authority to mandate vaccinations for government employees, such as public school staff. 

The effect that these mandates could have on public health is too significant to be held up by political or ideological disagreements. In Georgia, children are now the age group with the highest rate of confirmed cases. Current safety measures are evidently not working, and the reopening of schools has created a hotbed for the continued spread of the virus that must be addressed. With the authority to do so, state and local governments should push to mandate vaccinations for school personnel. APS and other school districts can and should be doing more to protect students by implementing vaccination mandates for all school teachers and staff.

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