Oregon Gov. Brown criticized for plan to vaccinate teachers ahead of elderly to reopen schools

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is being criticized by some residents and teachers' unions for her plan to prioritize vaccinations for school staff before the state's elderly population.

The plan will help the state reopen schools in the spring, Brown said in a Friday statement.

"I first made the commitment at the end of last year to vaccinate Oregon’s educators and school staff, and I reaffirmed that commitment last week," she said, despite some backlash. "Educators can be vaccinated quickly, district by district. This choice represents a rapid action that will have an outsized impact on Oregon kids."

The plan is a diversion from recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that frontline health care workers and elderly populations get vaccinated first before other frontline workers.

Brown, however, argues that "many" Oregon educators "would not get vaccinated this school year" if she followed the CDC's recommendations, "and Oregon kids would continue to suffer."

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"If we were to reverse that, and prioritize the needs of Oregon kids, it puts a two-week delay on beginning vaccinations for seniors who live independently," Brown said. "I know so many Oregon grandparents are happy to hold out just two more weeks in an effort to help get their grandchildren back into the classroom as quickly and safely as possible."

The Educational Freedom Institute, a nonprofit think tank supporting school choice, says schools have the capacity to reopen safely.

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"Substantial data indicate that schools can safely reopen in person and that schools are not major drivers of overall community transmission," Corey DeAngelis, director of School Choice at Reason Foundation and executive director at EFI, told Fox News. He pointed to New York City, which has a COVID-19 positivity rate of about 9% while the positivity rate in city schools is only 0.50%.

President Joe Biden is pushing to get most U.S. schools to reopen in his first 100 days in office, but the new administration’s testing czar recently conceded the timeline may be adjusted as needed.

A teacher wearing a N95 Face masks teaches mathematics (iStock)

A teacher wearing a N95 Face masks teaches mathematics (iStock)

Portland second-grade Spanish teacher Francisca Alvarez, who lives with her 78-year-old mother, told local news outlet KOIN on Thursday that she does not believe returning to school would be safe despite efforts to inoculate educators and other school staff.

Alvarez told the outlet that her mother barely survived COVID-19 and worries that she could be reinfected. 

"I want to be in the classroom," she said. "I don’t like teaching this virtual way, but my mantra — my belief — is if we survive we can teach later on, we can learn, we can narrow the achievement gap."

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She added that reopening with COVID-19 safety measures in place, such as six feet of social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing that schools across the country have adopted to continue in-person or hybrid learning, would be "torture" for the students and for the teachers.

"We go back to school and students still need to keep the six feet of distance and wear their masks," she told KOIN. "They’re little kids, and they’re dying to be near their classmates and they don’t understand, so my biggest concern is how am I going to keep them safe at school."

The Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) and Oregon Education Association (OEA) did not immediately respond to inquiries from Fox News. 

At least 55.1 million children are out of the classroom due to the coronavirus pandemic, Education Week estimates. (Credit: Fox News)

At least 55.1 million children are out of the classroom due to the coronavirus pandemic, Education Week estimates. (Credit: Fox News)

Elizabeth Thiel, president of the PAT, similarly told Oregon Public Broadcasting that vaccinating teachers would not be enough to safely reopen schools.

"Our schools are safe when our community is safe," Thiel told the outlet. "Our educators and our students come in and out of schools and go home to families. You can’t have safe schools without safe communities."

DeAngelis suggested that public and private schools have different incentives, which could be part of the driving factor behind public school teachers' opposition to in-person learning.

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"Private schools have been fighting to reopen, but so many public schools and teachers unions are still fighting to remain closed," he said. "The main difference is one of incentives: one of these sectors gets your money regardless of whether they open doors for business."

He added that "families are getting the short end of the stick" because if schools don't reopen, families can't simply "take their children's education dollars elsewhere" like they would if their local grocery store closed. 

The COVID-19 vaccine has not yet been proven to be effective on children, though vaccine makers like Pfizer have enrolled healthy volunteers to participate in studies to determine the efficacy of inoculating minors with the vaccine. 

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COVID-19 cases in Oregon are on a gradual decline after a spike during the holidays. The Oregon Health Authority said in its Thursday weekly report that daily cases were down 4% at 7,860 positive cases per day during the week starting Jan. 11 compared to the week prior. Hospitalizations were also down slightly, but deaths increased.

More than half of the state's COVID-19 cases stem from people ages 20 through 49 while people over 70 account for 77% of deaths related to COVID-19 in Oregon.