Vaccinate to educate: Add school and early childhood staff to priority groups

It takes just one case of COVID-19 to shut down an entire school, impacting hundreds, sometimes thousands, of families –disrupting learning and impeding parents' and guardians’ ability to work.

The IEU is lobbying for teachers and support staff in schools and early childhood centres to be included in vaccine priority groups. Here’s why.

On 19 January the IEU spoke out about vaccinating teachers. We distributed a news release to numerous media outlets as well as all state and federal politicians. This attracted considerable interest from ABC News 24, SBS News, Channel Nine News, 2GB, the Illawarra Mercury, the Newcastle Herald, the Canberra Times and others (see our Facebook page for vision and links). Here is the full version of the union’s media release.

Call for inclusion

The Independent Education Union of Australia NSW/ACT Branch is calling on the Federal Government to include teachers and support staff in schools and early childhood services as frontline essential workers in a priority group for vaccination.

“It is not only in the interests of teachers and support staff to receive the vaccination but also the entire community,” said IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam. “It takes just one case of COVID-19 to shut down an entire school, impacting hundreds, sometimes thousands, of families – disrupting learning and impeding parents and guardians’ ability to work.”

Since the COVID-19 crisis began, more than 50 schools in NSW have had to close owing to confirmed cases, and nearly 20 early childhood centres have been disrupted.

Then there’s the matter of extensive contact tracing and deep cleaning before the school can reopen, which can take anything from 24 hours to several days and cost in the tens of thousands.

“The IEU supports NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell’s COVID-safety guidelines for students starting Kindergarten, Year 1, Year 2 and Year 7, released on Monday 18 January,” Northam said. “But these guidelines should be extended to include priority vaccination of all school staff to ensure smooth delivery of education in 2021.”

International opinion

The IEU’s call is echoed internationally. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Education International (EI), a global federation of teachers’ unions, has already called on governments to consider education staff as a prioritygroup for vaccination.

“Schools are irreplaceable – re-opening schools and education institutions safely and keeping them open as long as possible is an imperative,” said UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay and EI General Secretary David Edwards in a joint media release. “School closures had adverse social and economic consequences on societies at large.”

They noted that more than 100 million teachers and support staff worldwide had been impacted by disruptions to schools during the pandemic so far. “Without calling into question decisions on other priority groups, we believe that teachers and education support personnel must be considered a priority group,” they said.

In the United States, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has classified school staff as “frontline essential workers” for vaccine priority. The Chief Medical Officer for Practice Innovation and Paediatric Infectious Disease at Stanford Children’s Health in California, Grace Lee, sat on the committee that drew up the recommendations. She said they put education workers so high on the list because of concerns about the social and academic effects of prolonged school closures.

“My worry is that some children are being left behind, and that we need to really be able to make sure that there is the opportunity for everyone to be educated,” Professor Lee said.

In the UK, the four Children’s Commissioners have similarly requested prioritising teachers for vaccination. As teachers and support staff know, schools and early childhood centres not only teach children, they also provide mental health and social support.

“It would be a vital first step in limiting the devastating impact of the pandemic on children’s rights this year, which may well have consequences for years to come,” the Children’s Commissioners said in a letter to the UK’s Chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

Proof is in the policy

While the full details of Australia’s vaccination policy are still being finalised, the first group will rightly include: frontline health workers; aged care and disability care workers; residents in aged and disability care; and quarantine and border officials. The second group is reported to be elderly people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 55.

“Let’s add teachers and support staff to the priority list,” Northam said. “The union will lobby the relevant ministers on behalf of its members for school and early childhood staff to be prioritised for vaccination. It’s in the national interest to minimise disruption to families in 2021.”