Vaccinate Special Educators with Front-Line Workers

Why vaccinating all educators early is key to mitigating Covid’s impacts.

The Lurid History of Autism and Vaccines

We are all hearing a great deal about herd immunity—and not just from the selfish autism anti-vaxxers this time.  I have posted about vaccine hesitancy and the NIMBY morals of autism anti-vaxxers who want to coast on the herd immunity of others.  More recently, for everyone (outside the ‘autism’ bubble), the concept of herd immunity has become front-page news—a sought-after goal that will allow us to feel safe from Covid-19, but only after most of us have gotten a Covid vaccine (or have had Covid).

Trump is on the way out the door.  (Too bad he can’t simply ‘turn that corner,’ and take Covid with him).  But there is other really good news: It looks like there will be a Covid vaccine before the end of 2020.   Public optimism about a Covid vaccine has grown with pledges from major pharmaceutical companies to not release a vaccine before completing safety and efficacy trials.  There’s also the news that a Covid vaccine may be as effective as most of the vaccines against childhood diseases.  This is leading to increasing discussion about who should get the Covid vaccine first.

Vaccinate Teachers! 

It would be a non-brainer to vaccinate children first—if young children were the most vulnerable.   But, children, fortunately, especially the youngest children, seem relatively protected by their young immune systems.  My call on who gets vaccinated first is teachers—to keep them safe so children can return to school, and thus to allow more parents to return to work, and downstream help the economy, too.  We have heard plenty about travails and disparities as all parents across America find themselves prescribed as their childrens’ educators.  This is easy for no one, and gets harder the more children you have, and the more competing work challenges you must juggle.   It is hardest for parents of children in special education.

Special Education Teachers to the Front of the Line Please

Since my microcosm is autism, I will qualify my call to vaccinate teachers by advocating for why special education teachers should go to the front of that line:  Special education is in the most dire of straits, serving those who require yearly ‘Individual Educational Plans’ (IEPs), i.e., a roomful of experts to design, update and implement how to teach that child annually.  Children with special educational needs, by definition, learn differently from typically developing children, so expecting parents to simply ‘try harder’ or ‘do more’ can be quite unrealistic.  Not only are parents unequipped to deal with their special education children’s learning needs at home, more often than not, their children don’t learn well in a room of 20, 25 or 30 peers, either.  These children often require classrooms of fewer than 10, and sometimes fewer than 5, children, with two, three or four paraprofessionals to aid the special education teacher in charge of the classroom.  These are children whose teachers need to be ‘hands on,’ literally, and so really need to be vaccinated against Covid.

Covid Vaccination and Special Education

From the work I do, I know well that children with autism present an extra burden of care for their families.   For one, autism is often first recognized by the fact that the child doesn’t learn and behave the way older siblings did.  Parents quickly realize that special skills are going to be required.  Once the child with autism is diagnosed, and parents are trained how to ‘wrap around’ special education and other therapies, they basically assume responsibility of providing 24/7 consistency—if they want the ‘best’ outcomes, which all do.  During Covid quarantine this is asking more than a lot.  This reality makes special education kids the first we need to get back into school.  Many have not been in a classroom since last March; and many have limited ability to benefit from remote instruction over the internet or CAI software–even if their schools offer it for more older or more able children.  Picture also that most children with autism may not understand or consistently observe social distancing, masks, the ideas behind PPE.  The youngest children with autism can require 1:1 home programs.  Substituting an interventionist who works hand-over-hand with an autistic  24-month-old three to four hours per day, four of five days per week with Zoom mommy sessions represents a pale replacement.  Such toddlers are in a critical period of neural plasticity, and really need to ‘learn how to learn’ from the get-go, and have bad behavior prevented from becoming an effective means of communication.  This means that in addition to special educators, behavior technicians, other therapists, and doctors who diagnose and design treatment plans need to be vaccinated, too—so they can resume needed hands-on work to guide treatment.

The Rest of the Line for a Covid Vaccine

Most obvious are folks with co-morbidities likely to have poor outcomes if they get Covid.   While there is talk about vaccinating ‘seniors’ first, perhaps we should consider saying ‘maybe’ there.  I am a ‘senior’ (a fit, I think, 66-year-old).  But, I have many friends who are very senior in their positions working comfortably from home, or even (partly) retired.  Sheltering in place simply is not the burden for them that it is for young working families with school-aged children.

We all want this to be over as soon as possible.  The link between Covid-19 and the economic devastation it has promulgated is obvious.  Key to rebuilding is getting people back to work, and key to that is getting children safely in school so parents can work in places of business that need them there to reopen.  This means recognizing teachers, especially special education teachers, as front-line workers.

References (Published: 11/10/20).

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