AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Another semester is starting out with more than half of the public school students in the nation learning in front of tablets and laptops, and concerns are growing about the students left behind academically and socially by continued school closures. That's why school staff have been designated among the earliest in line to get the new coronavirus vaccines. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been talking with educators around the country as they anxiously await their shots.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: We asked teachers on Twitter how they felt about the vaccine, and almost 2,000 responded, like Cheryl Coker (ph), who teaches music in Houston, Texas.
CHERYL COKER: And as an elementary teacher, my brain went to the beloved Dr. Seuss.
KAMENETZ: That vaccine...
COKER: I would take it in a box. I would take it with a fox. I would take it in a house. I would take it with a mouse. Vaccinate me here or there. Vaccinate me anywhere.
KAMENETZ: Federal guidelines say all school personnel, as well as child care providers, should be put in the box of frontline essential workers. That's category 1B, just after the elderly in long-term care facilities and health care workers. In some states, school workers have already begun to get their shots. Surveys show a minority of teachers expressing some vaccine hesitation, but most feel like Cheryl Coker and like Don Brown (ph), who drives a school bus in the Chicago suburbs.
DON BROWN: Yeah, I think I'ma (ph) get the vaccine soon as I can.
KAMENETZ: That's because of a funny thing he says happens as soon as students board his bus.
BROWN: It's a strange thing that happens. When kids get on the bus, they wait till they get to the top step, and they always cough. This was even before the pandemic.
KAMENETZ: In states like Utah and Texas, educators have been in tense discussions with state leaders over vaccine priority. In Utah, Heidi Matthews is president of the state's largest teacher union, which fought to get teachers moved up the list.
HEIDI MATTHEWS: I mean, we can't keep our desks six inches apart, much less doing any sort of social distancing.
KAMENETZ: Most schools in Utah are at least partly open and with big average class sizes.
MATTHEWS: Many of our teachers feel like they have been forced into, you know, that proverbial lion's den. They don't feel safe.
KAMENETZ: Are classrooms so dangerous when it comes to coronavirus? Well, that's the subject of two new studies. Both found schools can operate safely with precautions as long as community spread is not too high. But in most places in the United States, COVID is surging out of control. And that means mixed feelings at this moment for educators, especially where school buildings are open.
MICHAEL HINOJOSA: And I think it's still going to be horrible between now and spring break. But now I see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not a freight train.
KAMENETZ: When I reached Dr. Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent of Dallas Public Schools, he had just found out his staff could be getting shots as soon as next week.
HINOJOSA: I feel great. I feel that we've finally been listened to. During this whole pandemic, we've been the lost voice out there.
KAMENETZ: Educators who have yet to go back to work in person have different ideas about the vaccine. Clarice Brazos (ph) teaches humanities online in a Philadelphia public high school. Brazos says she'll be happy to get the vaccine, but she'll still be worried about her students spreading the virus, including on public transportation.
CLARICE BRAZOS: I work at a really small high school, but we've already had several students who have either lost parents or whose parents have been hospitalized. A lot of our students live with their grandparents.
KAMENETZ: No vaccine has yet been approved for children under 16, and younger people are at the back of the line, according to CDC guidelines. Public health experts say that vaccinating teachers will mitigate risk, but masks, hand-washing, social distancing and ventilation are here to stay at least for the rest of this school year.
Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.