While teachers across New York City raced to sign up for coronavirus vaccines this week, it could be many months before schools are able to ramp up in-person instruction significantly, public health experts said.
Many variables remain in play: how quickly teachers get shots, whether studies show that vaccinated people can still spread the virus, and what it will take to contain a new, potentially more contagious coronavirus variant, which has now been found locally. How fast parents will feel comfortable sending their children back to school buildings also remains unclear.
For now, only school buildings that include grades pre-K-5, or serve students with significant disabilities, are open. At most, 190,000 out of roughly 1 million students are eligible for in-person instruction, with about 250 schools offering it to all students five days a week. Mayor Bill de Blasio has hinted the vaccine could help clear the way for more in-person learning this spring and allow middle and high school buildings to reopen.
“Do I think we’re going to be able to do big things during this school year, bring back a lot of students? I absolutely do,” the mayor said. “I’m really encouraged, but I need that supply of vaccine, and I need people to want to get vaccinated.”
But public health experts are circumspect about the chances of dramatically scaling up in-person learning before September.
“Opening next fall with something that is normal-ish is something to aim for,” said Anna Bershteyn, an NYU professor and infectious disease expert. Even with the beginning of the vaccine rollout, “I think it will be really difficult to interrupt community transmission during this school year.”
Here’s why it could take a while for city schools to welcome many students back into classrooms — and what to expect in the meantime.
Vaccinating school staff will take time.
New York officials have prioritized vaccines for a wide swath of education workers — including teachers, day care workers, and bus drivers — putting them in the second wave of eligibility after frontline health care workers and nursing home residents and staff. That could help speed the return of in-person learning, as teachers are more likely than students to become seriously ill from the coronavirus. (The vaccine is not yet approved for children.)
But even as thousands of teachers sign up for shots, questions remain about how much supply New York will have on hand and how quickly officials can manage to vaccinate large numbers of people. The vaccine rollout has been sluggish and there have been early glitches and confusion with the online process for scheduling vaccine appointments.
At the current rate of supply from the federal government, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that it could take up to 14 weeks to offer vaccines to everyone who is currently eligible, including teachers. Vaccination rates will also depend on how many teachers are comfortable receiving the shot.
It’s not just about giving teachers shots.
The level of coronavirus spread in the broader community will continue to be a factor in making decisions about ramping up in-person learning in New York City — and some research points to the possible risks of doing so while the virus is spreading rapidly. Vaccinating the broader population will be an important ingredient in reducing that risk, experts said.
“It is critically important that we don’t think of the teachers as an isolated population; they are part of [the] overall community,” said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “So the bigger question is about uptake by [the] overall population.”
Ensuring the broader public has access to the vaccine may also help persuade families — especially those who live in multigenerational households or have relatives at high risk for coronavirus complications — to send their children back to campus.
Questions remain whether students should be vaccinated. Children are less likely to experience severe coronavirus symptoms and deaths are rare. For now, the Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is not approved for use in children under 16, and Moderna’s can only be given to those 18 and older, though trials are underway in people 12 and up. The superintendent of Los Angeles’ school district, the nation’s second largest behind New York, indicated that if approved for children, the school system would require students learning in person to receive a coronavirus vaccine.
The vaccine is likely to prevent illness. But can vaccinated people still pass the coronavirus to others?
It’s a question that could have significant implications for interrupting the spread of the coronavirus, though researchers are still racing to find the answer.
“If we do find out that vaccines do prevent transmission, then it’s a little bit rosier of a picture,” said Elissa Perkins, an emergency medicine physician and infectious disease expert at Boston University.
If vaccination does prevent transmission, some experts said it may not be necessary to send home teachers who are exposed to the virus, thus easing staffing shortages. Individual city classrooms have been shut down nearly 5,000 times since September, city records show.
Experts roundly agree that whatever the answer, schools are likely going to need to continue taking precautions such as mask-wearing, regular hand-washing, and ensuring proper ventilation for the foreseeable future.
“Masks are going to be with us for a really long time,” Perkins said, “especially because we know kids are not going to be vaccinated right away and masks are a really strong protective measure.”
How quickly will families flock back to buildings?
New York City has invested enormous effort in reopening school buildings on the assumption that most parents would send their children back to classrooms if given the option, even only one to three days a week. It turned out that about two-thirds of the city’s students have opted for fully remote learning for the remainder of the year.
It’s unclear how quickly families will begin to trust that school buildings are safe enough to send their children — or even when the city will be able to offer five days a week of in-person learning to anyone who wants it — which means remote teaching could continue to play a significant role.
“It will be important to maintain the remote option for families who haven’t been able to get vaccinated,” said Bershteyn, the NYU professor. “There’s a really important conversation to have about not only when can we take the remote option away, but should we take the remote option away.”