The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed what far too few Americans acknowledge about schools and teachers: they are essential to society. Teachers play indispensable roles in human development, particularly for children in elementary, middle, and high school, that cannot be replaced by remote learning.
As schools reopen and teachers expose themselves to the risk of Covid-19 infection, we must grant teachers the same priority access to vaccines and treatments that society readily gives to health care workers.
Most people — including doctors, nurses, and other clinicians — believe that individuals enter the field of medicine aware of the inherent dangers in the field. This is part of the traditional argument that medical professionals have a duty to provide care even at some risk to their own health. At least in America, teachers arguably take on a proportionally greater risk of serious injury than doctors and nurses due to the epidemic of school shootings. Not ironically, the hashtag #notonemoreteacher, which was initially used to protest school shootings, is now being used to protest school reopenings.
Debates are currently raging about who should be first in line to receive Covid-19 vaccines when they become available. I believe that society must immediately recognize the need to prioritize teachers for vaccine administration. Schools serve an indisputably essential and unique role in the development of children, and consequently in our society writ large.
Even with parental support, students are expected to have achieved only 50% to 70% of the academic progress expected during the 2019-2020 school year. Health care services provided through school clinics, such as asthma monitoring, immunizations, mental health services, and dental care, have not been performed. Schools also provide necessary nutrition for 30 million students who live with constant food insecurity. The lack of organized play, social emotional learning, and extracurricular activities provided by teachers and schools threatens students’ emotional development.
Much like doctors, nurses, and other health care workers who fulfill essential functions in society by caring for the sick, teachers and school staff are fulfilling essential functions as they return to their classrooms for the benefit of children.
Reciprocity and social worth are two ethical principles that have been applied to health care workers who place themselves at risk of infection for the benefit of their patients and the good of society. As schools reopen in the midst of a pandemic, the same principles must also apply to teachers. This is not to incentivize teachers to acquiesce in returning to school, but to acknowledge the debt society owes them for the risk they are taking. In addition, recognition of this entitlement would serve as some acknowledgment of the critical yet underappreciated role teachers play in the functioning of society.
In medical ethics, the principle of reciprocity holds that those who place themselves at risk for the common good will receive priority in treatment and access to limited resources. In the past, reciprocity has been applied to health care workers at risk of contracting an infectious disease while delivering care to patients. These workers would receive priority access to scarce resources, including medications, vaccinations, and ventilators, if indicated. Reciprocity has recently been invoked to justify prioritization of resources to individuals who participate in Covid-19 vaccine and treatment research if they were to fall ill.
Social worth is not usually a morally acceptable basis for distributing goods in a just society. In the unique context of a pandemic, however, the social worth criterion is justified when it refers to individuals essential to the preservation of society. Because of their roles during a pandemic, health care workers are regarded as having greater social worth, which means they should receive priority in the administration of vaccines to prevent infection and treatment if they were to be infected with the virus.
Teachers fill an essential role in society, much as health care workers do. Because of their role, society has an ethical obligation to prioritize teachers in the same way it prioritizes health care workers in the allocation of potential vaccines against and treatments for Covid-19 infection. It is the right thing to do.
Charles E. Binkley is a surgeon and director of bioethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif.