Children who have been marooned at home for months by the pandemic are slowly returning to classrooms, but many teachers say they won’t go back until they’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Especially in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest public school district, where teachers who were supposed to return to classrooms Wednesday worked from home again and are once more threatening to strike.
“Community spread is still so high in Chicago, and so many people are sick and dying. I don’t know how to keep myself safe in an old building with so many people," said Kirstin Roberts, a preschool teacher at the Brentano Math and Science Academy, on the city’s northwest side. “I don’t understand why we have to risk our lives when we’re so close to a vaccine.”
While researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended reopening schools as soon as possible with mask-wearing and other safeguards in place, the teachers most resistant to the idea were in districts like Chicago that have had little to no in-person education since March, Dennis Roche of Burbio, a data service that audits school opening information, said.
“Vaccinating teachers, it would seem, would make things easier,” he said. “But this hasn’t moved the needle” in districts where education has mostly been virtual.
The percentage of kindergarten through 12th grade students attending “virtual only” schools declined in the last week from nearly 50 percent to 42 percent, according to the latest Burbio newsletter.
But as of Wednesday, about a third of all students in the United States have not had any in-person education since March and they were concentrated in “a small group of six states and several big cities,” Roche said.
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Those states are Oregon, California, Virginia, New Mexico, Maryland and Washington, and the big cities include Chicago, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Cleveland and Boston, he said.
In Chicago, there has been a weekslong impasse between teachers and the school district over resuming in-person education, which has so far been limited to just a few special education and preschool classes.
Citing safety concerns, the teachers union Sunday voted against returning to classrooms despite being threatened with professional discipline and being locked out of online teaching platforms.
This forced the Chicago Public Schools to push back their planned return date from Monday to Wednesday to allow more time for negotiations, a deadline that's now passed.
President Joe Biden on Monday said he sympathized with the Chicago teachers.
"It's not so much about the idea of teachers aren't going to work," Biden said during a briefing with reporters. "The teachers I know, they want to work. "They just want to work in a safe environment and...as safe as we can rationally make it. And we can do that."
In a study published online Tuesday in the journal JAMA, CDC researchers offered a series of recommendations for reopening classrooms and said their data suggests schools are not responsible for the same type of Covid-19 outbreaks that have been reported at nursing homes, correctional facilities and "high-density worksites," such as meatpacking plants.
"There has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission," they wrote.
But in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy has not prioritized the vaccine for educators, teachers in the well-off suburbs of Montclair and Maplewood want to be inoculated before they resume in-person schooling.
“We are nearing February and already vaccines are available to high-risk individuals, so a return to school is on the horizon,” the South Orange and Maplewood Education Association, which is the local teachers union, said in a recent letter to the school board. “But to do so as numbers climb, variant strains are spreading, and under conditions which render actual instruction less effective, is not just fatuous but reckless.”
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine said he was accelerating the distribution of vaccines to school employees with the hope of getting all teachers back to the classrooms by March 1.
"Many of her districts will begin next week, but we do not have enough vaccine to begin all schools on Feb.1," he said.
Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said he’s fine with getting teachers vaccinated faster but many will not have got their second shot by March 1.
"While we agree that vaccination of school employees is critically needed in allowing the return to in-person instruction, it was apparent from the get-go that date was unfair and unrealistic," he said in an email to The Columbus Dispatch.
Ali reported from Chicago, Siemaszko from Montclair, New Jersey. This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.