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Monday  •  December 14, 2020

How Will Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout Impact HCPSS Decisions on a Return to In-Person Learning?

By Steven Keller


From a recent HCEA survey, ~30% of HCPSS teachers currently would take leave, retire or quit if HCPSS transitioned to a ‘hybrid’ or ‘bridge’ learning model that involved in-person classroom time.


From community discussions and perspectives shared by BOE members, it seems like the general hope is that the roll-out of FDA-approved covid-19 vaccines will enable teachers and the general populace to be vaccinated to a point where the risk level for a return to in-person learning will be deemed to be acceptably low and the understaffing challenges that we currently face may no longer be as severe.


However, despite emergency FDA approval, the unknown long-term effectiveness & safety of these vaccines is a concern to many people, particularly due to the novel mRNA-based delivery method that the vaccines employ and their accelerated trial phase. A recent national poll found that over 40% of the US population will choose to “wait a bit” before receiving the vaccine, instead of getting it as soon as its available to them. The poll doesn’t define how long “waiting a bit” is, and no other option was given to refine how long survey respondents would choose to wait. Is “a bit” 1 month? 6 months? 1 year? Longer?


With this in mind, what if 20-30% (or more) of HCPSS teachers don’t feel comfortable to get vaccinated immediately, or within the first 1-2 years?  If somehow made compulsory, won’t many of those teachers likely just take leave, retire or quit instead of being compelled to be vaccinated?


Looking ahead to the student population, K-12 school-age children won’t be vaccinated en-masse for at least the next year, and it’s likely that there will be at least some families that choose to not have their children receive these novel mRNA vaccines, as long as it’s not compulsory.


Case numbers will likely fall in the late Spring & Summer 2021, but may rise again in the late Fall & Winter 2021 despite the vaccine rollout, particularly if (1) enough of the general population opt out of receiving the vaccine until its safety and effectiveness is better understood, and (2) the overall effectiveness for the general population ends up being more in line with such traditional vaccines such as the flu vaccine (40-60%).


To summarize:

  • Without a vaccine ~30% of HCPSS teachers have stated that they would not return to in-person learning.
  • With a vaccine, an unknown amount of HCPSS teachers & students (potentially at least 20-30%) may opt out of immediate vaccination or will leave the system if vaccination is compulsory.
  • The overarching health risks may still seasonally exist for the foreseeable future, particularly during the majority of the school year (early Fall through late Spring).

Thus, HCPSS cannot rely on these vaccines to be a silver bullet that will eliminate or even significantly reduce the existing classroom health risks & understaffing challenges anytime soon, and certainly shouldn’t use the prospect of these vaccines as a reason to perpetually stay in fully virtual learning mode until the health metrics get better and stay better.


Instead, HCPSS needs to expect these challenges to persist for at least the next 2-3 years and develop a long-term ‘bridge’ plan for a return to in-person learning that (1) accounts for an anticipated 20-30% understaffing of in-person teachers & staff and (2) is flexible enough to handle changing seasonal health metrics and the expected continuation of social gathering restrictions that the county & state will continue to periodically impose.


To call this a significant challenge is an understatement. All those involved in this planning process deserve our deepest respect and gratitude.


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