Why aren’t higher ed instructors considered teachers? (And where they stand in different parts of the country)

Not everyone has been teaching online.

On December 30th, The Tennessean announced that K-12 teachers and child care workers would receive the COVID-19 vaccine in phase 1B, after health care workers and senior citizens. Many states have similarly modified their COVID immunization hierarchies, some of which include higher ed in phase 1B.

Note: I recognize that all states are lagging behind in the vaccine rollout and that most places aren’t even to close to phase 1B. The lack of a clear, consistent, unified, plan contributes to the implementation struggles.

My quest to learn more about higher ed’s status prompted me to ask questions in a private Facebook group. The more than 580 posts abundantly demonstrated the lack of information communicated about the rollout, inconsistencies with who can receive the vaccine in 1B, and what constitutes an educator. Aided by the (very helpful) vaccine tracker in The Washington Post, I studied individual state plans and the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ascertain if higher ed instructors were addressed at all.

My vaccine distribution scavenger hunt was more difficult than it should have been. A few state health departments provide clear graphics on their vaccine homepages to guide users through (like Arkansas). But most states barely convey any distribution information. Instead, I had to dig through lengthy PDFs to find the info. Adding to this, different states opted to name and number their plans differently. Most states use “phases,” but differ on how many phases (1A, 1B, 1C for some, but Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island use whole numbers. MA has 3 phases. The other two have four). Alaska has tiers. At least three states don’t explicitly list phases (Florida, Georgia, and Indiana), but somewhat describe the order.

No wonder people are confused.

At the state level, 44 include teachers in an early phase of the rollout. A few more states appear to do so, but aren’t clear in their plans. Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, and West Virginia specifically include higher ed instructors in the same classification as K-12 teachers. Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wisconsin list higher ed instructors in the phase after teachers. The remaining states directly exclude higher ed and/or are vague in their plans. Furthermore, in some locations, counties decide the distribution and have elected to vaccinate specific groups of local college or university instructors, as exemplified with the immunization of Arizona State University instructors teaching in-person. I will note that vaccine plans do continue to change, especially at the local level.

In the midst of my research, Elizabeth Redden’s Inside Higher Ed article gave me hope about the possibility of instructors receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in the teacher phase of the rollout. In it, she quotes CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund, who clarified that the CDC recommendations did indeed include “college, university and professional school teachers, support staff, and daycare workers” (as quoted in the article). Redden went on to outline the positions on vaccine priority from different organizations and then highlighted counties and states that plan to vaccinate higher ed instructors. I appreciated this well-researched article and felt optimistic overall about our possible inclusion in the rollout.

However, this clarification is not part of the CDC’s official recommendations. This is a big “however,” given that the written CDC guidelines served as the foundation for the state and county vaccine plans. In other words, unless your state already listed higher ed. instructors in the rollout, Redden’s article and Nordlund’s CDC endorsement means little for the implementation. My communication with my own local and state health departments unfortunately confirmed this statement.

The omission of higher ed. instructors from COVID vaccine plans draws from the false assumption that all colleges and universities continue to only offer classes online, thereby eliminating contact. In reality, modality has depended on the program, school, and state COVID responses. I won’t go into the economic, technological, and pedagogical reasons that colleges and universities have decided to offer forms of in-person learning, but instead acknowledge that it has and is happening. According to “The College Crisis Initiative”, approximately 48% of the 2,958 colleges and universities studied included some form of face-to-face contact between instructors and students for Fall 2020. Nearly 27% of schools were primarily or fully in-person. Even in some COVID hotspots, in-person returns are underway for Spring 2021. Staff also have interactions with students and other people, putting them at higher risk for transmission.

Why is this an issue? The age range of traditional college students aligns with those most likely to transmit COVID-19.

The CDC COVID Data Tracker Cases by Age Group. Found here.

Masks and social distancing have helped to protect instructors thus far, but may not be enough for the far more contagious COVID-19 variant spreading throughout the world. Thus, given the extent to which instructors must interact with a highly-transmissible sect of the general public, they should be clearly included in vaccination distribution plans. And aside from public health rationale for this inclusion, isn’t it also problematic to suggest that higher ed. instructors are not teachers?

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