Editor’s Note: Caroline Nyczak is an English teacher at Zeeland East High School in Zeeland, Michigan. She was a monthly contributor to the post calvin blog, a platform for Calvin University graduates, for seven years, and her writing is included in both of the alumni organization’s collections of published essays. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
At the clinic where I got my Covid-19 shot, there were cards that you could fill out that read, “I got vaccinated because I love my ___________.” I wrote “job.” I love teaching, not knowing what each day will bring and working directly with young people.
Virtual teaching for a few months of the pandemic robbed me of the exciting and rewarding parts of the teaching experience. I could engage teenagers better in person than from behind a computer screen and taught in person for most of the 2020-2021 school year. I was thrilled that the vaccine allowed me to do it safely and effectively.
In February, I wrote about my decision to get the Covid-19 vaccine while pregnant. A significant factor was the reality that as a teacher of over a hundred students, my exposure risk to Covid-19 was high.
I suspect that in much of the country, the 2021-2022 school year will look very similar to this past one. When instruction is happening in person, there will be Covid-19 safety protocols to follow. However, these guidelines, though well-intentioned, are not always realistic. It is impossible for students to consistently stay six feet apart in hallways, and many classrooms do not allow for such distancing.
There are often instances, too, where a teacher always remaining six feet away from a student is unlikely. For example, this past year, when circulating in the classroom and giving individual help, I often found myself leaning over students’ shoulders (masked, yes) but unconsciously following my instinct to privately correct a student’s mistake, or to refocus a distracted student who surely would not benefit from being singled out in front of the class.
In April, when Covid-19 cases were spiking and emails about students testing positive and being quarantined were flooding my inbox, I had several students falling behind on schoolwork due to absences. One of these students politely asked to speak with me in the hall after being out for a week with Covid-19. (At this point, none of my students – regardless of age – were eligible for the vaccine.)
He asked for an extension on his book report, and if he could keep the book a little longer as he hadn’t finished it yet. He had had it pretty rough, and was only just now starting to feel better, he said. Of course, I granted him the extension, realizing only later that we had stood very closely together in the hallway.
Not long after that, I found myself very congested for a few days. I initially attributed this to seasonal allergies, but then decided to get a precautionary Covid-19 test. To my surprise, it was positive. I don’t know if I picked it up at school. I was extremely thankful that I had gotten the vaccine. This sentiment was echoed emphatically by my doctor, midwife, family, and fellow teachers.
My case of Covid-19 was mild, meaning the vaccine had worked the way it should. I had symptoms for only a few days and was back at work soon after. Two months later, I delivered a perfectly healthy baby boy.
Based on my experience alone, it baffles me why any teacher would choose not to get the vaccine, especially if they know they will inevitably be working with unvaccinated children. Though older students are eligible for the shot, they surely will not all choose to be vaccinated. Children under 12 are still not eligible for the vaccine, and we know that the Delta variant appears to be spreading more aggressively throughout the younger population than previous variants have.
Perhaps the unvaccinated teachers of these children feel safe enough with the Covid-19 protocols that will surely be in place in many schools – wearing masks and distancing themselves from students – but these precautions are not foolproof. Masks are not a guarantee, especially in poorly ventilated, densely populated spaces and especially when worn by students who may not always practice proper mask-wearing.
Furthermore, when students are interacting with me, especially those who are distraught or need individual help, Covid-19 safety may not be their first priority. It’s easy to forget to practice social distancing when there is a human being in front of you who needs you.
Teachers are in their chosen profession to serve and to be of use to the populations that need them most. Many nurses, who are also professionals working in service to others, and around the unvaccinated, are required to be vaccinated.
How can we then, in good conscience, work directly with children knowing that by not being vaccinated, we are actively increasing their chances of contracting a deadly disease? And how can we serve our students when we ourselves are getting sick and dying?
Besides, we need teachers. Teaching is declining in popularity as a chosen profession, especially as of late. It’s imperative that teachers get vaccinated so that they can continue to do their good and important work.
Vaccinated teachers are one of the only ways to ensure safe classrooms, effective learning, and healthy children.
In the past year, teachers have gone above and beyond, and been widely recognized for their efforts to engage students amid a pandemic. Traditionally though, teachers are considered heroes because they put the needs of others and the good of their communities before their own. They recognize the importance of planting seeds in a garden they may never get to see. Today, teachers can’t be heroes unless they are vaccinated.