Ethical Educator

The Queue for Vaccinations 
School Administrator, September 2021

Scenario: The governor asks the state superintendents’ association for its position on prioritizing school districts to receive COVID vaccine doses for staff. A group of urban superintendents contend that high-needs districts deserve first priority due to the pandemic’s inequitable impact on the education of historically disadvantaged children and the urgent need to return them to classrooms full-time. Other superintendents, feeling community pressure, argue that no district should receive special consideration over any other district. What position should the association take?

Shelley Berman:

The urban superintendents make a compelling case. While many smaller districts have been able to provide more consistent instruction through hybrid models, the urban and economically disadvantaged districts have often had to rely on remote learning throughout the pandemic. In urban environments, even locating some students to provide equipment and access to remote learning has been challenging, causing significant learning time losses. Prioritizing urban and economically disadvantaged district staff could help balance some of the inequity that has emerged. 

Nationally, vaccine administration has acknowledged those in greatest need by giving priority to health care and essential workers and senior citizens. It isn’t a stretch to apply similar reasoning to high-needs districts. 

However, a decision to prioritize some districts would require the agreement of the association’s board or at least its officers or executive committee. This proposal may be divisive for association members depending on their prior discussions around issues of equity. Given that other districts, such as rural ones, may be able to make an equally valid case for deserving priority, the association would do well to allow input from all districts before a decision is made. 

In previous years, many associations have addressed the issue of equity and have made recommendations on proposals such as more equitable funding of districts based on need. If the association has had these conversations and taken positions that differentiate among districts, providing a recommendation to prioritize vaccine for high-needs districts, whether urban or rural, would be appropriate. If the association has not had these conversations, now would be an apt time for district representatives on the association’s board to take up the issue. 

Louis Wool:

Ethical dilemmas of this magnitude are confounding for superintendents, whose personal beliefs about what is just might conflict or be poorly received in their local districts, possibly placing their jobs at risk. The value of a state association should be the willingness to take on a position supporting the greater good. Surprisingly, that has not been my experience with state associations. They are reluctant to take controversial positions, fearing losing political influence and discontent among members.

The dilemma poses two critical questions for superintendents at the local level. What is your moral purpose and to whom do you owe your greatest loyalty? Those answers are readily evident; leadership choices are likely not. The state association should support prioritizing the needs of students who experienced disproportionately adverse outcomes due to COVID-19. A local superintendent needs to determine whether he has the moral courage and the political capital to advocate for that position and what he is willing to risk to do so.

After serving 20 years as a superintendent in a suburban district and 18 years in an urban district, I consider it an incontrovertible truth that students in urban centers typically face high degrees of poverty, are predominately children of color and face far more significant hardship, but especially during the pandemic. 

Urban superintendents are justified in advocating their staffs be prioritized for vaccination. As a senior suburban superintendent, I advocated that very position. However, over my two decades, I have built a holding environment and fostered deeply core values. The superintendent’s role is to advance opportunities for children within their care while simultaneously advancing the goal of leveling the playing field for all students — doing so requires a deep understanding of purpose and the organization’s readiness to take on a moral stance at odds with its community.

I was unsuccessful in getting my local organization to adopt this position, with many indicating privately that they could not advocate for anything other than their teachers having access first. Regardless of the risk that would have brought, even as a new superintendent, not supporting students with the greatest need would have been unacceptable.

Chris Nicastro:

The association has an obligation to represent all members and, indirectly, all the children and communities they serve. The leadership should explain to the governor that they strongly approve of giving school district personnel priority in receiving the vaccine—starting with those most at risk according to CDC guidelines. That might mean giving older staff and those with underlying conditions throughout the state — in all school districts — the first opportunity to get vaccinated. After that, priority should be given to those districts serving populations of historically disadvantaged children.  This should include staff serving children in urban areas, but also residential facilities, reservations and other locations with high-density populations.   

Education often apportions resources based on need. In this case, it might mean that some districts are prioritized over others due to COVID-related factors such as race, poverty and population density. While some more advantaged communities might object, most would understand the rationale for the decision. In the case of a pandemic, most communities have come to accept and support relying on the science to guide actions. Such a rationale would give the association firm ground on which to stand.

MaryEllen Elia:

This situation regarding COVID-19 and vaccines is unfortunately a reality for districts and schools across the country. This is a difficult situation, given that we want all districts to be able to have their staffs have the vaccine available to them. But this really requires a model that takes into consideration the percentage of coronavirus cases as well as the percentage of disadvantaged students in a district.  

We know from the emerging data that, all things being equal, the disadvantaged students are more negatively affected by the pandemic than the non-disadvantaged students. The state superintendents’ association should work with a committee of superintendents from both sides of the issue to develop an appropriate formula based on the above to fairly distribute the vaccines as they become available.                   

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Chris Lee Nicastro, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and Louis N. Wool, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.