Politico

Inside the vaccination fight that’s dividing teachers unions


The leaders of the nation’s largest teachers unions are pleading with educators to get Covid-19 vaccines — and facing resistance from their own members.

Fresh calls for vaccine requirements — including a full endorsement last week by the country’s biggest education union — are colliding with a membership that’s consumed with battles over mask rules. Even where there’s support among school employees, local concerns and bureaucratic roadblocks have stood in the way of imposing mandates.

Teacher vaccine mandates seem foreign in Miami as the virus tears through Florida and unions push to simply uphold mask mandates, the area’s union president acknowledged. Chicago educators need shots by October, but schools open in two weeks while teachers push for more student vaccinations. Some labor leaders simply aren’t interested in requirements, despite high-profile support for them from the presidents of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

“Just because we pass a policy doesn’t mean they’re going to change their minds,” Texas teacher union official Zeph Capo said of his state’s vaccine holdouts in an interview. If the virus keeps getting worse, he said, his members won’t need to be convinced. “I just hope it’s not too late for our members and their families.”

Less than half of eligible adolescents in the U.S. were fully vaccinated against the virus as of last week, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a successful back-to-school season hinges on vaccinating school staff while keeping classrooms open with basic health precautions as cases climb in vaccine-resistant communities.

School vaccination requirements are rare but gaining momentum, researchers with the Center on Reinventing Public Education concluded as part of their latest review of 100 large and urban school systems.

“Different places have different situations and circumstances,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the teachers union for Miami-Dade County public schools.

Both the NEA and AFT have promoted Covid-19 vaccines and regularly tout surveys from earlier this year that concluded 80 to 90 percent of the unions’ educators were vaccinated. By the end of March, the CDC estimated nearly 80 percent of pre-K-12 teachers, school staff and child care workers received at least their first shot of Covid-19 vaccine.

Tens of thousands of Chicago school employees must get a Covid-19 vaccine by Oct. 15, unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption, or lose their eligibility to work until they receive doses. Classes are scheduled to begin Aug. 30, and workers who aren’t fully vaccinated will have to get tested for the virus at least once a week.

The Chicago Teachers Union estimates between 80 and 90 percent of its members are already fully vaccinated. School district data suggested in June that 67 percent of employees said they were fully vaccinated or had scheduled a vaccination. But vaccines are getting caught up in the latest round of talks between the union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.

“Just having a vaccine and saying ‘Well we’re gonna mandate it for employees’ doesn’t go far enough because a lot of other people are in school buildings,” Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey recently told reporters. “Students, especially.”

City data shows roughly 42 percent of Chicago’s 12- to 17-year-olds were fully vaccinated as of Sunday — and vaccination rates are lagging in the city’s predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

“We are observing what’s happening around the country, with students going back into school communities, and how classes are being closed, schools are being closed, and they are making pivots to virtual learning,” CTU vice president Stacy Davis Gates said. “We’re looking at how hospitalizations of young people are climbing in some of those places.”

In Mississippi — where viral spread is at record levels in some counties, well more than 4,000 students are quarantined, schools have already gone virtual because of outbreaks and hospital beds are hard to find — vaccine mandates are taking a backseat to other protective measures.

The Mississippi Association of Educators has pleaded with Republican Gov. Tate Reeves for a mask mandate in schools, but he insisted mandates of any kind were useless.

“What we say, what we write on the page, what we do doesn’t matter a flip,” Reeves said during a press conference last week. “What matters is how individuals act.”

Washington state’s circumstance is nearly the opposite of Florida’s and Mississippi’s. The state superintendent sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee asking him to require all school employees to get vaccinated. The request has led to a range of reactions from the local unions.

While a Washington Education Association spokesperson told the local NBC station that educators would be subject to an order from the governor requiring vaccination without opposing it, the Spokane Education Association’s president told another outlet he didn’t agree with the proposed policy — adding that schools showed they could teach safely without a vaccine mandate last school year.

Many school districts could still be a long way from considering the implications of a mandate.

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, said vaccine requirements were not a major issue locally at this point, even as it’s discussed more nationally and in other states.

“With nearly 90% of our educators already vaccinated in Ohio, this isn’t really an issue here,” he told POLITICO in an email.

Other unions are advocating for more layers of protection but stopping short of promoting vaccine requirements.

In Broward County, Florida, three unvaccinated school employees died from Covid-19 in a single day, according to Anna Fusco, the president of the teachers union for the massive school system. Broward’s union is still pushing for mask rules and other health protections, including creating a vaccination site at their headquarters.

But the union is not in a position to advocate for a vaccine mandate at this time, Fusco said.

The union might back mandatory vaccinations for teachers, she said, if school infections increase, federal authorities grant vaccines full approval or the school board discusses requirements more seriously with union leadership.

“I 100 percent know it’s going to be a discussion,” Fusco said. “I think that people just need a little time to think.”

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