Teachers Can Protect Students by Getting Vaccinated and Wearing Masks at School

Masked teacher and student greet with elbow bump

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Key Takeaways

  • An unvaccinated teacher infected half of her students when she removed her mask to read to them.
  • Even with safety measures like distancing and air filtration, unvaccinated children remain vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
  • Experts stress that asking teachers to wear masks and get vaccinated can protect students.

As school settles into session, parents, teachers, and students still face uncertainty about COVID-19 and the classroom. The highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread, causing spikes in infections in the United States and other countries. In light of this, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF have called for teachers and school staff in Europe and Central Asia to be prioritized for vaccines. 

“This is of paramount importance for children’s education, mental health, and social skills, for schools to help equip our children to be happy and productive members of society,” said Hans Kluge, the director of the WHO European region, in the statement. “The pandemic has caused the most catastrophic disruption to education in history.”

How Unvaccinated Teachers Can Affect Students

The vaccination rate among teachers and school staff in the U.S. is high. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statement released in April, nearly 80% of Pre-K-12 teachers, school staff, and childcare workers received at least their first shot of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March. 

But there are still teachers who have chosen not to get vaccinated. In May, an unvaccinated elementary school teacher in California infected half of her students when she removed her mask to read to them. According to a CDC case study, those students then spread COVID-19 to other students, family members, and community members.

The CDC case report tells us that despite extensive classroom precautions, unvaccinated children remain highly vulnerable to COVID-19 in an indoor setting. These precautions include the masking of students, the distancing of desks, the opening of windows, and the use of an air filtration device.

“The use of masks alone by the students who sat closest to the front or back of the class was insufficient to protect them from infection by an infected, unimmunized adult who did not consistently use a mask in an indoor setting,” explains David Vu, MD, MS, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, San Jose, California.

He notes that fewer students who sat in the middle of the class were infected, which shows that the combination of mask-wearing and further distancing did protect these students from infection.

The case study also found that the risk of in-class transmission from an infected student to another unimmunized student was low, likely due to a combination of classroom precautions as well as compliance with mask-wearing. However, the risk of in-class transmission from an unimmunized infected adult teacher was high, despite the use of numerous precautionary classroom measures.

“An important factor that likely contributed to this higher risk is the large production of respiratory droplets when teachers project their voice to reach the entire classroom, which is inherent to their role,” explains Dr. Vu.

Protecting the Younger Generation

According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in fall 2020, 48 million students attended public schools in America, and in fall 2019, the number of teachers was cited as 3.2 million. Research also tells us that the average child spends approximately 1,000 hours per year in the classroom.

When you place these students, who are largely unvaccinated, back into the classroom, the risk of spreading COVID-19 increases. Additionally, kids under age 12 are still not able to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Children under age 18 can’t make the choice to get vaccinated without their parent or guardian’s opinion. This means the younger generation remains especially vulnerable.

David Vu, MD, MS

Vaccinating, masking, and distancing are decisions that we can make to minimize our own risk of infection. Not being infectious is the best way to minimize the risk to children.

— David Vu, MD, MS

“It is important to remember that while the virus causes the disease, humans are responsible for spreading it,” says Dr. Vu. “The only way the pandemic will end is if we stop infecting each other. Vaccinating, masking, and distancing are decisions that we can make to minimize our own risk of infection. Not being infectious is the best way to minimize the risk to children.”

This risk of infecting children is why organizations like the WHO and UNICEF are encouraging teachers to wear masks and get vaccinated.

For Carol Winner, MPH, public health expert and founder of social distancing brand Give Space, teachers getting vaccinated and masking up is a clear choice. “We know enough now that we can just simply do the math,” says Winner. “Vaccination and mask-wearing requirements for teachers are critical for their safety and that of the students.”

Carol Winner, MPH

Vaccination and mask-wearing requirements for teachers are critical for their safety and that of the students.

— Carol Winner, MPH

We already know these measures work. Dr. Vu points out that distancing, vaccinating, and using masks are strategies that have worked to curtail the course of the pandemic in the U.S. over the past year. “While their protective efficacy cannot be guaranteed as future variants emerge, they still are strategies that hold the greatest potential to impact transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” he says.

What This Means For You

COVID-19 vaccination is not mandated for teachers in the U.S., but the CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of their vaccination status.

You can ask to view a copy of your school’s COVID-19 policy. If you have any concerns about your child's risk of COVID-19 transmission in the classroom, speak to the school administrator.

If your child shows any symptoms of COVID-19, such as cough, headache, or fever, keep them at home and arrange for a COVID-19 test as soon as possible.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. UNICEF. All schools in Europe & Central Asia should remain open and made safer from COVID-19, say WHO and UNICEF.

  2. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Nearly 80 percent of teachers, school staff, and childcare workers receive at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine.

  3. Lam-Hine T, McCurdy SA, Santora L, et al. Outbreak associated with SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant in an elementary school — Marin County, California, May–June 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70(35):1214-1219. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7035e2

  4. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Back-to-school statistics.

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more. Claire is passionate about raising awareness for mental health issues and helping people experiencing them not feel so alone.