Ask a scientist: Should teachers be vaccinated first?

As plans to fully reopen schools gather speed, the debate about whether teachers should be bumped up the vaccination queue continues. We asked scientist Kit Yates about what the data says

Zofia Niemtus

Coronavirus: Teachers are more likely to catch Covid than the average adult, research suggesgts

Is it fair to ask teachers to return to school buildings before they are vaccinated? Should they be moved up the priority list? Would that endanger other groups?

We spoke to Dr Kit Yates, a senior lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Bath and a member of the Independent SAGE group of scientists, to ask the big questions about the vaccination debate.

What does the research say about teachers being vaccinated sooner than initially planned?

In terms of the vaccination priority list, the priorities have been saving lives or reducing the number of QALYs lost [a measure of the state of health of a person or group in which the benefits, in terms of length of life, are adjusted to reflect the quality of life]. That's how the modelling has been done.

The reason schools were closed was so we could reduce transmission and save lives, so it’s hard to make an argument that we should be bumping teachers up the list above those first nine priority groups because they're the groups that we're trying to vaccinate in order to reduce loss of life. 

And of course, teachers who are older or vulnerable will be vaccinated with those groups. After that, though, I do think there is a strong argument for vaccinating teachers as a priority, close to the top of the queue. 

Are teachers more at risk as a result of being in school?

There is some evidence to suggest that teachers are at a higher risk of being infected than other professions, but overall the evidence is a bit mixed.

Some studies do show that teachers have a higher risk of being infected, but the same studies also showed that there was no increased risk  to teachers of severe Covid or Covid requiring hospitalisation. So although the risks of severe disease are not elevated, obviously there are other problems associated with being infected, like long Covid

And all these studies have some caveats. In particular, the one that I'm talking about [from Public Health Scotland] has caveats associated with the timing of the data collection, from the beginning of March to the end of November. Schools were closed or partially closed for large portions of that time period, or there was lower prevalence in schools. Overall the evidence is mixed.

Are schools going to be able to function effectively if staff aren’t vaccinated?

The government has said that the first thing to reopen should be schools and they should also be the last thing to close. If we're really intent on keeping schools open, then we can't have teachers going off sick all the time; schools were having to close down in December, because they didn't have enough teachers.

I think this does make a really strong argument to vaccinate teachers as soon as reasonably possible, if nothing else in order to keep schools open and functioning.

How do teachers compare to other professions in terms of vaccine priority, such as healthcare workers?

Healthcare workers are at higher risk because they're continually exposed to it, but I don’t think that argument holds for teachers to the same extent. But healthcare workers have already been prioritised, so we can put them aside.

But there's some evidence to suggest that teachers do get infected at higher rates than other professions. There are obviously lots of other frontline workers who could say that if teachers are getting vaccinated, then they should be too: firefighters, police officers, shop workers, any people who are having to do public-facing jobs. 

These professions also have strong cases but I think the argument is probably strongest for teachers, for two reasons: firstly because we’re trying to keep schools open as a priority and secondly because we're asking teachers typically to do their jobs without wearing a mask, especially in primary schools because it's really a barrier to communication. 

So whereas with police officers, firefighters and shop workers, we’re quite happy for them to wear masks to protect themselves and to protect the other people in that they're working with, we're assuming the teachers won't be wearing masks. That is a strong argument for getting them up the priority list.

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Zofia Niemtus

Zofia Niemtus

Zofia Niemtus is deputy commissioning editor for Tes (Maternity cover)

Find me on Twitter @Zofcha

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