By Editorial Board
Star Tribune 

Require vaccination for state's K-12 teachers

Thwarting an evolving virus requires evolving strategies. Shots for educators is one of them


September 7, 2021

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

It is ludicrous that upcoming entertainment events have more muscular COVID-19 prevention protocols than almost all Minnesota K-12 schools.

Planning to see British pop star Harry Styles at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center on Sept. 22? Fans must show proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test, and then mask up once inside.

Guests at all performances at the Orpheum, State and Pantages venues will have to do the same, Hennepin Theatre Trust announced this week.

The vaccination or test requirements, which some sports teams are also enacting, are sensible responses to the surging delta variant that has overwhelmed hospitals in the South. Many private employers are following suit, requiring vaccines for employees or regular testing.

The institutions to which Minnesota's children are entrusted ought to be ramping up the fight against delta as well. Because kids under 12 aren't yet eligible for the COVID vaccine, the teachers and staff they're around for hours each day should be vaccinated or expected to provide proof they don't have COVID.

It is an outrage that so few Minnesota districts will require these pragmatic precautions. The conscientious exceptions include the Red Lake district, which serves the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota and is believed to be the first in the state to require staff vaccinations. On Friday, the St. Paul Public Schools' school board voted unanimously to require immunization for employees.

These two districts are admirably prioritizing community health and doing everything possible to prevent learning disruptions. All Minnesota schools should follow their lead on staff vaccination and accompanying mask requirements.

Recent reports drive home how vital it is to vaccinate educators. One unimmunized California teacher infected 12 of her 24 students after taking off her mask to read to them, according to a disturbing new federal analysis. The students were too young to be vaccinated.

In Texas, a school district had to temporarily close after two teachers developed COVID and died. In Minnesota, an outbreak in Albert Lea during the first week of school underscores vulnerability here.

University of Minnesota infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm is now strongly advocating for school vaccine mandates, as well as improved ventilation, distancing and using high-filtration masks in classrooms.

Eight states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, have heeded rising concerns and will requiring educator vaccinations or testing, according to Education Week. It's shameful that Minnesota isn't among them.

The decision currently rests with local leaders because, according to his office, Gov. Tim Walz cannot mandate shots for teachers; the Legislature would need to enact such a policy.

Lawmakers would not face opposition to this from Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union. In fact, the organization has developed contract language to help districts wanting to require the shots. Officials estimate about 90% of union members are vaccinated.

But legislative action seems unlikely. Instead of worrying about the health of educators and students, Republican lawmakers are continuing to play pandemic politics, this time by attacking Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.

State Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, recently suggested at an anti-masking rally that she should lose her job. He's wrong; Malcolm has provided surehanded pandemic leadership. Abeler also misrepresented vaccine safety stats at the rally, damaging his reputation as a thoughtful legislator.

The pandemic is far from over, and new strategies will be necessary to thwart an evolving virus. At this moment, that means requiring teacher vaccinations and universal K-12 masking. Legislators' gamesmanship is regrettable.


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