First, we hoped a COVID-19 vaccine was possible. Then, we hoped it was safe. Finally, we hoped it would come soon.

Now, all three boxes have been checked, either through proof or planning, and the first vaccine is expected to begin U.S. distribution within weeks. The uncertainty no longer lies in if a vaccine will come or when, but in who will be first in line to receive the inaugural doses. 

A CDC advisory panel voted Tuesday to prioritize vaccines for front-line health care workers and residents of long term care facilities. That much is largely met with consensus in the public health sphere. After that, the plan gets a bit more hazy. While it could take most states several weeks, even months, before the first round of vaccinations are administered, no official recommendation as to who comes next has been made from the CDC. 

The real test happens between now and a vaccine’s arrival

That’s where teachers, some of the pandemic’s unsung heroes, come in. If the goal is to maximize effect with a fairly limited number of doses, America’s 3.7 million school teachers are a place to start. 

COVID-19’s repercussions have hit few groups harder than K-12 schools. Experts fear disproportionate effects on students of color and those from poorer areas. Many school districts are reporting a ‘striking drop’ in academic performance — one D.C.-area school district reported an 83% increase in students with failing grades this fall, while two in five students in St. Paul and Houston have F’s.  

The cause? Some educators point to the shortfalls of online education, while others blame the “whiplash” of closing due to COVID-19 spikes, reopening and closing again. Many Utah schools have closed and later reopened since September.

While vaccinating teachers would not eliminate in-school outbreaks, it could significantly decrease them. The World Health Organization reports that COVID-19 is usually introduced to schools by an adult staff member, and adult-to-adult transmission is more common than adult-to-student or student-to-student. 

If schools want any semblance of normalcy for any portion of this school year, vaccinating teachers as a priority group is a must. Finishing the school year with at least a few months of masked, socially distanced learning — without constant whiplash of closing and reopening — is only possible if teachers are recognized as priority. Utah’s current vaccination plan slates the general public to receive doses beginning in March, starting with the elderly and those at high risk. Everyone else can receive a vaccine sometime in June or July. 

Clumping teachers in with the rest of the general public would signal a return to permanent in-person teaching no sooner than next fall. Students struggle with the current model, though, and teachers fear it. One middle school teacher expressed her concerns in a Deseret News op-ed weeks before school began this fall: “Students and teachers are putting their lives at risk to reopen schools. Education should not include a life-or-death risk assumption.” A high school teacher shared the same: “If our concern really was for the students and their health and safety, reopening schools would be the last resort, not our first.”

Would vaccinating teachers cure all the woes of pandemic-era education? No. Unvaccinated students will still fill classrooms and cases will still arise. But protecting the highest-risk, highest-spreading individual in every classroom will cut the rate of spikes and give educators much-needed peace of mind.

Teachers are on the front lines, too. They deserve to be protected.