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If In-Person Schooling Is Essential, Wen Says Teachers Should Be Vaccinated

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Dr. Leana Wen says there's a big question in the debate over reopening schools that has to be asked.

LEANA WEN: I think the conversation has to shift from this concept of, is everything 100% safe or the right level of safety to, are schools essential?

MARTIN: Dr. Wen is an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. She also served as Baltimore's health commissioner. She says deciding that in-person learning is essential will create more urgency around getting schools to open again.

WEN: I think at this point in the pandemic, we need to realize that we're not going to get to zero percent risk. That's just not possible. And at the same time, there's nothing that we do that's also 100% risk. Everything is some gradation. And we have to do our best to manage that risk, to understand the risk, gauge it for ourselves.

MARTIN: But in a hospital situation, if you compare it to that essential service, there is no virtual alternative. Right? I mean, you have to go be seen by a doctor. And I guess the argument, what makes it complicated, is the existence of a virtual alternative to school and education.

WEN: That's right. So maybe the hospital analogy is not the perfect one. Maybe a better one might be a doctor's office - because a lot of doctor's visits can be seen via telemedicine. However, some cannot be seen via telemedicine, and a lot of people may also not be benefiting from telemedicine as much as they did in person - or at least used in conjunction. But the essence of this is that we need to identify what's essential and then do our best to make available all the resources those institutions need.

So for example, I strongly believe that at the very beginning, we should have prioritized teachers and school staff for vaccination. If we had done that, we could have gotten schools back for in-person learning a lot sooner. There really should be no expenses spared. And then if we are now going to be saying 3 feet of distancing is fine, which I think that we should, just because we need to get our kids back for in-person instruction, then we also need to be investing all these other resources into reducing risk for our students and for the staff.

MARTIN: I mean, you mention this change. The CDC amended their guidance, saying that schools can now move from 6 feet of social distance to 3, but teachers unions don't really buy it. I mean, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, replied in a letter to the CDC, we are not convinced that the evidence supports changing physical distancing requirements at this time. So you can see these changes at the federal level. But if teachers themselves don't believe it, if they do not feel safe, then what difference does it make?

WEN: That, again, is why we also have to help change the conversation from this concept of, are people going to be safe to, what can we do to make it safer? So for example, I would have liked to see the CDC, when they made that change from 6 feet to 3 feet, to say, we recognize that physical distancing of 6 feet is an important layer. If we're going to be doing away with this layer, we need to replace it with other layers. So for example, we need to now have weekly surveillance testing for every student in schools that only have 3 feet distancing. Or we also - these schools also need to start meeting these ventilation standards as well.

I think that kind of conversation is going to be really important, not saying that schools should be closed indefinitely, but we need to recognize that there are more contagious variants that are here. And when we have something that's more contagious, it means that the activities that we thought were lower risk are now actually higher risk. And if that's the case, we really need to be implementing additional measures, especially if we are replacing some measures that we're lifting out of necessity.

MARTIN: But the larger point you're making, again, that if in-person learning is the goal - if we've decided as a society that it is essential, then you've got to have the resources to back it up.

WEN: Exactly. And I think that's what went wrong with the response in the first place, that we as a society did not prioritize schools. We prioritized bars. So I think at the end of this pandemic, we're going to look back, and our singular biggest failure all along will be our failure to our obligation to our children and to people who work in schools.

MARTIN: Dr. Leana Wen, an ER physician and public health professor at George Washington University.

Thank you so much.

WEN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.