WASHINGTON — President Biden wants teachers across the United States to have at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by the end of March. That would help reopen schools, which Biden described as a “national imperative” in his remarks, made at the White House on Tuesday afternoon.
“Let's treat in-person learning like the essential service that it is,” he said.
Biden’s remarks were focused for the most part on a deal he had facilitated between pharmaceutical corporations Merck and Johnson & Johnson, who the president noted were “usually competitors.” They will put that competition aside temporarily, with Merck helping to speed production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration last weekend.
That means, Biden said, that long waits for coveted shots could soon end. “We're now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May,” he said in his address. It was previously thought that that benchmark might not be reached until the end of July.
First, however, Biden said he wanted to see educators inoculated and, consequently, back in the classroom. His goal is to have “a majority” of schools open by the end of his first 100 days in office. So far, that goal appears to be proceeding only haltingly, with the administration having recently tempered expectations the president had set.
Biden said that teacher vaccinations would amount to “one more tool to school reopening,” in addition to the billions in aid that state education departments are set to receive in the president’s $1.9 trillion rescue plan, which has been passed by the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats.
“Not every educator will be able to get their appointment in the first week,” the president cautioned. “But our goal is to do everything we can to help every educator receive a shot this month — the month of March.” (The Johnson & Johnson product is a single-dose vaccine, while those produced by Pfizer and Moderna require two doses spread several weeks apart.)
Teachers are now eligible to be vaccinated in 34 states, according to a Bloomberg analysis. “I’m using the full authority of the federal government. I’m directing every state to do the same,” Biden said of states that had prioritized other groups, such as seniors.
The president did not elaborate on how that authority would be wielded, since education-related decisions are almost always left up to the states. But he did say he would use the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program to prioritize teacher vaccination.
Biden also reiterated what Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky has said repeatedly in recent weeks: that vaccination should not be a hard-and-fast condition of teachers returning to the classroom. At the same time, he acknowledged that the anxieties of parents and educators are likely to persist until those shots are administered. The coronavirus vaccines now available are remarkably effective at preventing someone from falling seriously ill or dying from COVID-19.
Rapid vaccination could finally break the logjam that has resulted in many districts engaged in either remote or hybrid instruction. The lack of comprehensive in-person instruction in many large districts has resulted in mounting frustration from parents, which some Republicans have already begun to exploit as an issue.
Near the conclusion of his remarks, Biden referred to his predecessor’s much-criticized handling of the pandemic. “We are making progress from the mess we inherited,” Biden said, even as he cautioned that plenty of work remained in the months ahead.
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