How to safely reopen schools during the pandemic: The debate continues

Progress being made in ensuring vaccinations for teachers


Most of California’s approximately 6 million students, grades K-12, have not been in the classroom since March 2020 due to COVID-19. Indeed, Gov. Gavin Newsom has come under significant pressure to get California’s public schools open. Everyone — teachers, parents, and students alike — are eager to get students back to in-person school as soon as possible. There is little dispute about that. The question is: How do we do this safely?

Many teachers are still not vaccinated. Strong California teachers’ unions have maintained that teachers getting vaccinations is necessary to reopen schools. However, Newsom and other lawmakers disagree.

Similarly, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not require that all teachers be vaccinated to reopen schools. Rather, the CDC advises that schools can safely open for some in-person learning, even with moderate levels of virus transmission in the community, by following other safety measures including wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, keeping smaller class sizes, providing personal protective equipment to schools, and increasing availability of testing facilities.

With that said, the CDC has asserted that teachers and school staff should be included in Phase 1B of vaccination programs along with frontline workers and those age 75 or older. Likewise, on March 2, President Joe Biden announced that he was directing all states to prioritize teachers, staff and childcare workers for the vaccination, with the goal of them obtaining their first shots by the end of March.

However, states ultimately make the decision on what groups are prioritized for receiving the vaccine, and every state is handling this CDC guidance differently. Teachers and other school staff members are on many state priority lists, but certainly not all of them. As of the beginning of March 2021, the available data suggests that some or all teachers are eligible to receive the vaccine in only 34 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. This has left many teachers across the country feeling abandoned, undervalued and demoralized by the vaccine rollout.

Recently, groups of parents in California have been demanding that schools reopen without delay. Based on the CDC’s guidance, various school districts throughout California are eagerly working on plans to bring students back into classrooms.

However, teachers’ unions have said that teachers are simply not comfortable returning to school buildings until they are fully vaccinated. Furthermore, continued research on how children respond to the vaccine is needed and it will still be quite some time before many students can get vaccinated.

The risk to teachers may be even greater for teachers of younger students that neither understand social distancing nor understand the need to keep masks on. The lack of vaccines for younger children is therefore a serious consideration for many teachers faced with the question of when it will be safe to return to in person learning. Teachers are dying from COVID-19 in states that have hastily reopened.

Thus, some unions — including in California — contend that even after teachers and staff are vaccinated, virus transmission must decrease to ensure a safe return to in-person teaching. Importantly, no matter how much we all want to reopen schools, California has limited power to do so unless unions agree.

Research shows that not just teachers, but also many parents in California are extremely concerned about a hasty reopening. To date, Newsom has not stated whether he would consider forcing schools to reopen or using his emergency powers to suspend local bargaining.

As of March 8, San Francisco officials planned to reopen classrooms for younger students starting April 12, under a tentative agreement reached with the teacher’s union. The agreement was announced after months of debating how and when children and teachers could safely return to in-person school. It is still unclear how many of the district’s students will be able to return to in-person school before the end of the school year in June.

As of March 9, after eight months of negotiation, Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers’ union reached a tentative deal to reopen in-person instruction starting in mid-April. This agreement is subject to approval by the LAUSD school board and ratification of the membership of the union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, there is simply no quick fix as to when and how to safely reopen schools. While the path to reopening schools continues to be anything but clear, the good news is that on March 11, President Biden promised rapid vaccination progress, stating that all adult Americans will be eligible for the vaccine by May 1 and announced the launch of a national website to facilitate those vaccinations.

Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of the Dolan Law Firm, PC. Allison L. Stone is a senior associate attorney based in our Los Angeles office. We serve clients throughout the Bay Area and California from offices in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. Email questions and topics for articles to: Our work is no recovery, or also referred to as contingency-based. That means we collect no fee unless we obtain money for your damages and injuries.

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