My friend and colleague and one of the education giants of our time, Mary Hatwood Futrell, wrote this on the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013: “We pause to mark the distance we’ve come and keep focus on what’s yet to cover. One thing seems certain as the need for equity persists: the push for progress will be equally persistent.”
Even in the best of times, teachers know more than a little about persistence. But as we mark the anniversary of Covid-19’s grip on the planet, even as we celebrate the unprecedented successes of science, we are only now beginning to understand its limits. When the history of the pandemic is studied in decades to come, the lessons to be taught will be written in the months to come, framed by the essential requirements of equity and leadership.
First, a ‘pause to mark the distance we’ve come’ is essential. One year into the pandemic, the formulation of multiple vaccines bear witness to the awesome power of science to overcome disease. Compare this to the measles virus, first isolated in 1954, the first vaccine licensed in 1963. For polio, the timespan was two decades.
But we have also witnessed the staggering power of ignorance – the ability of weak men with national microphones to sow distrust in medicine and denial of science. Trump, Bolsonaro, Magufuli most infamously will be remembered for their lies and cowardice; for the neighborhoods and homes they helped empty and the cemeteries they helped fill.
No vaccine or personal protection or simple restatement of the truth will undo the deadly results of authoritarianism and the ignorance it fosters and breeds, including huge pockets of vaccine denial and rejection in communities worldwide. But we can write the important final chapters of the novel coronavirus by committing ourselves to be global ‘super spreaders’ of both the vaccine and the truth.
According to the latest data, just 10 countries, some of the richest in the world, have administered 75 percent of vaccinations, while some 130 countries – population 2.5 billion – have yet to administer a single dose. Leave aside the morality of this Vaccine Nationalism and stick with the science. We know, because the World Health Organization tells us, that the spread of Covid variants among unvaccinated populations threatens vaccinated and recovering populations as well. The pandemic in all its mutating forms will only end for you when it ends for everyone.
Two major initiatives are underway to prioritize equity. First, the WHO has set up COVAX, a program that aims to provide 2 billion vaccine doses to developing countries by the end of this year. But COVAX is struggling. Production is not matching the need. The second initiative is aimed at ramping up production globally. Education International and other organizations are urging the World Trade Organization to temporarily lift intellectual property barriers to boost vaccine production, the so-called TRIPS waiver.
A third initiative is underway and can be rapidly scaled by governments. Vaccine hesitancy and denial are critical issues at a time when vaccinations are imperative. It is time to prioritize the vaccination of all adults in schools.
Teachers and education workers can be found in every community in the world. Most surveys of societal trust in professions place teachers at or near the top. There is an immense potential for leveraging the highly influential professions that teach science and enjoy trust to dispel myths and show vaccines work.
Alongside the preventative measures that need to be implemented in all schools, vaccinating adults in schools including teachers and support personnel is critical to a safe and permanent return to onsite education all over the world.
When the pandemic struck a year ago, educators left the schools and got to work, online, over the air, often literally on the road delivering books, lessons and food, adapting to distance learning out of necessity, taking the lead to keep education going for millions of students.
Communities missed their schools – these vital publicly-funded institutions, with credentialed professionals dedicated to the well-being of students, to their social mobility, to nutrition, to their protection. Schools were freshly defined and recalled as the center of communities, where students learn to live and collaborate with each other, gaining the knowledge and creativity to produce, among others, our scientists and researchers and health-care workers.
Prioritizing adults in school for vaccination is a public-health force multiplier that can help restore confidence in public schools. Global bodies that support, advise, fund and research education systems including WHO, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the Global Partnership for Education have recommended vaccinating educators to demonstrate that they are highly-valued members of society and essential partners/stakeholders in keeping education systems open.
We know that a large number of parents are not comfortable sending their children to in-person school. For school reopening to matter for students, families need to have greater confidence about safety. That’s why governments around the world including the US, Mexico, Argentina, Poland, Indonesia, Russia, Serbia, Iceland, India and many more by the day are vaccinating educators and seeing positive results from communities and educators alike.
Ramping up production and equitable distribution of the vaccine is a critical step to ending Covid. By vaccinating adults in schools as a priority, we can elevate the credibility of ‘the jab’ in every community. That’s leadership. In the past year, the deadly pandemic has spread hand in hand with toxic politics. With real leadership and equity, modeling both justice and the truth, we can defeat them both.