Public schools can take the lead in vaccine blitz

In February 1954, an elementary school in Pittsburgh, Pa., served as the site of the first injections of a new polio vaccine developed by the renowned virologist Dr. Jonas Salk. 

Nearly 67 years later, America’s public schools can and should play a pivotal role in President Biden’s plan to rapidly deploy covid vaccines in the weeks and months ahead. 

In remarks to the nation before his Inauguration, President Biden laid out an ambitious goal of delivering 100 million vaccine shots within his first 100 days in office. 

“Think of places that are convenient and accessible,” the president implored. “School gyms. Sports stadiums. Community centers.”

As superintendents overseeing some of the largest public school systems in America, we fully support the administration’s plan. We stand ready to assist in the fast moving national effort to defeat the coronavirus. And we invite our colleagues inside our states and around the country to join in a coordinated strategy to end the pandemic.

We are especially encouraged by President Biden’s plan to open federally supported vaccination centers in areas hit hardest by the virus, including Black and Latino communities.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities report noted the grim reality that we see daily through the eyes of low-income and minority families in our school systems. 

“Longstanding systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of dying from COVID-19,” it reads.

Regardless of the public health disparities, schools in rural, suburban and urban cities and counties not only serve as places for teaching and learning but as hubs of community engagement. During off hours and on weekends, our school buildings, sports facilities and parking lots are regularly used for neighborhood meetings, church gatherings, voting in elections and all variety of functions that are vital to our democracy and society.

Historical precedent and common sense dictate that schools must serve as critical links in the healthcare delivery chain as we all work together to return the country to some sense of normalcy.

As a starting point, we are extending the hand of partnership to the Biden administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which the president has tasked with setting up new vaccination centers. While our facilities are conveniently located relative to population centers, the job of actually administering vaccines — putting shots in arms — must be led by FEMA and designated public health authorities.

As always, we will coordinate efforts with our school boards, mayors and county executives, local officials and our governors and state education agencies. Moreover, we’re asking the vast network of corporations, nonprofit organizations and philanthropies that typically support public schools, to stand with us in this new mission.

We would be remiss if we did not combine this urgent call to action with a request for President Biden and members of Congress to prioritize government aid in the safe reopening and recovery of our schools. We appreciate Washington’s support to date and we pledge to be good stewards of the taxpayer resources entrusted to us at the local, state and federal levels.

Looking ahead, we take seriously our responsibility as community leaders to be part of a grand national solution during one of the most trying times ever in America. Further, we take seriously our obligation as professional educators to lead by example and show our kids what’s possible, in otherwise bleak times, when we all work together to achieve a greater good.

History is teeming with examples of public education as life’s great equalizer. Our educators and employees already are proven heroes every day, in classrooms and school buildings. Our students and families give us hope and inspiration for the future.

Now, let’s answer this latest call to service, roll up our sleeves and get to work alongside public and private partners. Paraphrasing the president from a recent speech — the more people we vaccinate and the faster we do it, the sooner we can put this pandemic behind us.

Susan Enfield is the superintendent of Highline Public Schools near Seattle, Anthony Hamlet is the superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools and Darryl Williams is the superintendent of Baltimore County, Md. Public Schools.