Vaccines for children could be the ‘game changer’

Now that children ages 5 to 11 are eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, parents and educators have questions, and the AFT’s Facebook Live town hall on Nov. 18 gave people a chance to have experts address their concerns. Participants heard from Assistant Surgeon General Rear Admiral Aisha Mix, who is also known as the nation’s chief nursing officer, as well as AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos and parents from Massachusetts and Texas.

Vaccine town hall

“There are 28 million kids in the United States who now have an opportunity to get vaccinated,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who hosted the event. “Nearly 1 million kids under the age of 12 got their first shot in the first week the vaccines were available. This may be the game changer for us to reopen schools and keep them open.”

Mix, the highest-ranking professional nurse in the country, said that the country has been challenged over the last 18 months. “Certainly, many of us have experienced great loss, whether it’s indirectly or directly. And at the same time, we’ve had to get back to basics as it relates to our connection with family, with friends, the communities we live in,” she said.

Parents as partners

In Massachusetts, schools that can show that at least 80 percent of students and staff have been vaccinated will be allowed an exception to mask mandates by state education officials. Weingarten called it “an interesting way of incentivizing and keeping kids safe.”

Kontos said her union’s focus has been on encouraging the school communities to get vaccinated. “We used back-to-school events as opportunities to celebrate being back together, but also to share that message of safety through mask-wearing, good hygiene and vaccines as a way to keep us together in the long run. And I think we’ve laid a good foundation,” she said.

She noted that the state has seen a rise in COVID-19 cases in its schools, causing some disruptions, but the uptick has also increased the urgency to get vaccines out to all eligible kids. “Our communities are really embracing the vaccine rollout for the younger students,” she said. “Information about the vaccines is being distributed in multiple languages in Massachusetts, and our community is being informed that everyone is welcome, regardless of immigration status or healthcare coverage. We really are making it clear that we want all students to have access to the vaccine, and we desperately want a school year with as few interruptions as possible. And we know that vaccines are truly the way to do that and continue to combat this virus and create a new normal in our schools.”

Weingarten said that parents have to be partners in creating a return to normalcy but noted that the attempts to divide parents and teachers will require an effort to rebuild trust.

Colleen McElligott-Liporto, a parent and reading specialist in Lynn, Mass., listened to people she and her family trusted—her pediatrician and her sister, who is a nurse—to make the decision to get her young children vaccinated. The pandemic has “kept us from really living our normal life,” said McElligott-Liporto, who is also a member of the Lynn Teachers Union. “We’re hoping that with all of us vaccinated, we can consider going back to a relatively normal life.”

Veronica Lindsey wanted to make sure that her 11-year-old was vaccinated because he has underlying health conditions. “We do have a lot of hurdles and obstacles when it comes to vaccination, educating our community,” said Lindsey, who is a teacher in the Socorro Independent School District and a member of the Socorro AFT based in El Paso, Texas, where most of the schools are Title I and most of the students are Hispanic.

Child receiving vaccine
Credit: GettyImages/NoSystem images

Lindsey’s union partnered with the city and the school district to hold First Book events that also provided vaccination opportunities to the community. Thanks to that effort, nearly 3,600 students have been vaccinated.

“To be able to continue to work and get back to school as safe as possible in the midst of the COVID pandemic and as a parent and educator, it’s just a relief to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Lindsey.

Educators are a trusted source

Vaccine hesitancy is still an issue in many communities across the country. When asked what can members do to combat misinformation and disinformation about the vaccine, Mix noted that to date, nearly 10 percent of all eligible children have gotten the first dose of the vaccine, and it should be celebrated. “We must continue to celebrate the wins, continue to generate the excitement.”

In addition, Mix encouraged members to educate themselves about COVID- 19 vaccine options.

“Before you can ever engage with anyone related to their information or misinformation, you first have to know it for yourself. Be honest with yourself. Acknowledge your own questions, hesitations, gaps and knowledge that you might have,” she said, adding that it is essential to give people permission to feel what they feel. “Listen, empathize and direct them to a credible source of information.”

Mix also said that educators are a trusted source in the community. “Know that even when people pretend that they’re not listening and they’re not hearing, they’re actually watching and they are listening and they want to see what you’re going to do. So be sure that your actions follow your word and that they are aligned with integrity. Because ultimately, when it’s all said and done, know people are going to trust you. In fact, they trust you with some of their most precious things on Earth, their children.”

Educators need the support of parents and the community, said the panelists.

“We do have the best interest of your child at heart, but we’re taking care of all your little ones and your big ones. Just be able to help us help them,” said Lindsey.

“Educators see what our students need, and we want to help even though we don’t always have the resources to do it,” said Kontos, noting that the recovery funding would go a long way in helping schools. “I’m forever grateful for all the work that’s gone into getting us resources. I think that’s how we avoid the burnout and transform demoralization into opportunities for success for our students and educators, because we’re all in that classroom, it’s our environment, it’s their learning environment, and we need to just keep plugging in and take care of each other.”

Mix agreed and encouraged members to take care of themselves as well. “We’ve had to really embrace this new way of life, but some of the mental challenges and the emotional toll has meant that we also had to pause. I invite all of you to pause. Remember that you cannot take care of anyone if you do not take care of yourself. Please continue to place yourself first. Make sure that you’re filling your cup and then sharing with others from the overflow.”

[Adrienne Coles]