Should Teachers Talk About COVID? Lessons From the Past

January 24, 2022

Teachers aren’t keen to bring up the topic of COVID, according to their Facebook posts. “I don’t think we are allowed to,” one teacher wrote. “There’s no way I’m going near that subject since it’s been so politicized,” another pointed out. “How about no, it’s not our job” and “I’m not touching that with a 50-foot pole” are added comments that recently appeared online. COVID has led to a conundrum for teachers as they reflect on their part in disputes over the vaccine.

Whether a child gets the shot is the parents’ decision. Still, home isn’t the only place where children can go for answers to their questions about the vaccine. It’s the school’s job, after all, to inform kids about the world around them. So, what is the teacher’s role? Should teachers talk to children about the vaccine, and should they urge the children to get it? Thinking about these questions took me back over two decades to the year I spent as a history grad student in the archives of Lyon, the third-largest city in France. I’ll never forget the dust and must of the archives or the insights I gained as I pored over old records and letters that dealt with nineteenth-century public health, including medical inspection of schools.

One day, I happened upon a box of records from the 1880s that showed the dilemma teachers faced in Lyon’s campaign to give all children the smallpox vaccine. At the time, smallpox still caused many thousands of deaths each year and left its survivors disfigured. Yet parents, much like many of those today, often feared seeing their children suffer from the vaccine or thought it might lead to dangerous side effects. So, they pushed back when the city sent its doctors into schools to vaccinate the children. The teachers found themselves caught in the middle between unwilling parents and irate doctors who griped about teachers’ failure to support them. The result was heated conflict as teachers refused to let doctors vaccinate children without the parents’ consent.

Dr. Jean Boyer’s description of his experience in one preschool evokes the cloud that tended to descend on classrooms at the mere mention of the vaccine. Upon entering some classrooms, Dr. Boyer encountered teachers who refused to even let doctors touch the children in their charge without telling the parents. And one preschool director, as Boyer raged, had mounted a veritable rebellion against the vaccine, leading to an undignified shouting match in front of the class. In this case, Boyer, whose feathers were ruffled by this affront to his authority and wisdom, beat a hasty retreat to stop exposing children to the spectacle of this “discussion ridicule.”

Boyer and his colleagues mainly blamed teachers for children’s resistance to the vaccine. But the parents were the ones who called the shots, protested F. Passard, a teacher who found herself in the tricky role of go-between for angry doctors and anxious parents. Passard had come into conflict with Dr. Charles-Amédée Carry, who viciously attacked her for impeding his attempts to vaccinate the children under her care.

Despite the doctor’s accusations, Passard claimed to have acted in good faith. Not only had she announced the date of the vaccinations to her class, but she had also encouraged several parents to submit their children to the procedure. In addition, Passard noted that she, her young son and her maid had recently received the inoculation. Still, most of her students had responded to the announcement of the vaccinations by saying “ma mere ne veut pas,” or my mother doesn’t want me to get it, Passard explained to the mayor of Lyon. In defending her actions, Passard expressed the ongoing dilemma of teachers who try to honor both the wisdom of science and the wishes of parents.

This conflict has continued to our day since schools have long been key partners with public health authorities in achieving widespread vaccination. There is a long history in the U.S. of using schools as sites to introduce novel vaccines: diphtheria, polio and measles. By partnering with schools, government thought it could get more buy-in for new vaccines. Parents in the early twentieth century were used to getting information from schools and put trust in them regarding children’s health, as New York City Board of Health Director William Hallock Park explained after waging a bold vaccination campaign in public schools.

In 1921, Park led a team of doctors in giving thousands of children the Schick test for diphtheria and injecting them with a new vaccine. The experience had convinced him that “the success or failure in getting consent from the children or their parents depends largely on the interest which the principal, assistant principal and teacher take in the matter.”

Still, parents should have the final say in whether their children joined in the vaccine trial, the Medical Liberty League, a former antivaccination group, insisted in response. “Teachers have a serious moral responsibility in this matter,” the league pointed out in 1922. “They have the confidence of the parents of their pupils to a remarkable degree. They will not want to be misled by the propaganda of Schick test advocates into doing anything to abuse the confidence parents and pupils so generally repose in them. It is the school that is public—not the child.”

That meant partnering with parents, according to Childhood Education, a magazine for teachers of young children. In 1937, it made this point in an article on the “Responsibility of the Teacher for Child Health” by Hortense Hilbert, a public health official at the Children’s Bureau in Washington, DC. “Adequate health care for children represents a combination of family and community interests and responsibilities,” Hillbert explained. “The home is the center of the child’s life, and the parents chiefly determine what provision is made for the health of the family. However, those responsible for education of the child outside the home must, of necessity, share in supporting and continuing this provision. This can best be done in close rapport with the family, with family-health workers and with other specialists in the field of child health—physicians, nutritionists, mental hygienists and dentists.”

So, teachers should take part in “joint health conferences with a physician, each student, the child’s parents and the school nurse,” Hillbert advised. And the duties of teachers stayed much the same about a decade later when the polio epidemic reached its height. In 1950, the National Education Association Journal published an article, “If Polio Comes,” that outlined the role of teachers in the nation’s fight against the disease. The article aimed to educate teachers about polio and point them to more information so they could “clear away misconceptions of the disease in science classes and in conferences with parents.”

This was a gentle approach that worked because polio was a highly visible disease and many children who were infected still attended school or returned after some time. Students and parents knew firsthand just what polio looked like. They’d seen children with the limp, atrophied muscles and unsteady hands that revealed the disease. So, in 1954 the U.S. public greeted the first polio vaccine with tremendous relief and glee. Parents so dreaded polio that they were quick to seek the Salk vaccine for their children, with no need for coercion or convincing. A few voices spoke out against the vaccine, but they got little traction in a nation desperate to prevent the disease.

The success of the Salk vaccine led health officials to assume parents would eagerly hail other new vaccines. But the 1960s proved them wrong. Families long accustomed to living with measles, for instance, shrugged off the new vaccine against the disease. Middle- and upper-income parents tended to get it for their children if the family doctor recommended it, but not all doctors did. A gap in infection rates opened up between poor and prosperous families. And after health officials tried one inducement after another to no avail, they turned to coercion, endorsing state policies that made the new vaccines a must for children to attend school.

These trends signaled a new era for vaccination in our nation, one marked by campaigns mounted to end illness, not just prevent it, and school vaccination laws aimed to free society of preventable infectious disease. This shift in America’s vaccine agenda came up against a surge of social movements that led folks to flout authority and traditional sources of expertise. Women pushed back against patriarchy. Environmentalists pushed back against industry. Patients pushed back against doctors. And a growing number of parents, emboldened by the temper of the times, pushed back against required vaccines.

These ongoing social currents led to conflict in 2019 when New York City responded to a measles outbreak by mandating vaccination against the disease. A city council member said, “You need to be diplomatic in the way you come out. You can’t come out with force all of a sudden.” And one incensed mom remarked, “I don’t think it’s up to the city to mandate anything. We all have constitutional rights.”

Still, arguments like these didn’t deter NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio from mandating the COVID vaccine for all eligible children as of last December, the city now requires children ages five to eleven to show proof of one COVID vaccination dose to eat indoors at a restaurant, see a show, go to a movie theater, attend a party at Chuck E. Cheese or any other venue for indoor fun. In addition, the NYC vaccine mandate applies to many after-school activities for young children. Kids over five must be vaccinated to attend “high-risk” extracurricular activities like band, sports and dances in public schools.

The pressure is mounting on parents to have their youngsters get the vaccine. Even more parents may come under the gun since a vaccine for children under five should roll out later this year. And schools are now involved, as they have been in the past. So, should teachers talk to children about the vaccine and how should they tackle this touchy issue? One Florida teacher weighed in with a measured response. “I think it’s important for teachers to be sharing factual information with their students, talking about it—but not sharing personal opinion,” she said. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have issued similar guidance. The academies have advised schools to avoid lecturing parents who haven’t gotten themselves or their children vaccinated, but instead “give them opportunities to make a new decision.”

When it comes to convincing parents to get their children vaccinated against COVID, pro-vax school leaders need to tread the line between badgering and persistence. They can highlight news on federal approval of vaccines, call attention to outbreaks, address myths or disinformation. But it’s by no means their place to wish a pox on families who reject the vaccine. In the absence of state mandates, it’s up to parents to decide, as those embattled teachers in Lyon knew well so long ago. The old documents I read in my grad school days have taken on new meaning for me as COVID keeps leading to conflict. Vaccine resistance isn’t new—and the teachers of today can still draw lessons about it from the teachers of the past. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as history shows. Or as the French like to say, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


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