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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

School districts nationwide are facing a worsening teacher shortage because of the coronavirus, further complicating the tough decisions about whether to have in-person classes.

Why it matters: When teachers test positive, fall seriously ill or are self-isolating from potential exposure, many districts don't have enough substitutes to keep up.

Where it stands: There's early evidence children and schools are not major vectors of the virus, especially with proper social distancing, ventilation and mask requirements, but the risk for adults at school is not zero.

  • Districts in Tennessee, Michigan and Maine and many other parts of the country have dozens of teachers absent at a time and had to close classrooms.
  • Since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, at least 751 Arizona teachers have resigned or quit, according to the Arizona Schools Personnel Administrators Association.
  • The risk of infection has also triggered some early retirements and sick-outs.

What they're saying: Teachers have demanded more personal protective equipment and better ventilation to help manage the risk.

  • But the absence of safety measures or unified guidance has put "teachers in a terrible, terrible position where the the only thing they can advocate for is having remote education," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
  • "At the end of the day you needed double the space and double the number of teachers in order to deal with this pandemic," Weingarten said.

By the numbers: 1.5 million teachers in the U.S. have health conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, per a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.

The bottom line: "The consequences of doing the job poorly or doing it when it’s not feasibly safe are very very serious," said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director at the AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

WHO says most pregnant women can now receive coronavirus vaccine

A doctor administering Moderna's coronavirus vaccine at a university hospital in Essen, Germany, on Jan. 18. Photo: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

The World Health Organization has altered its guidance for pregnant women who wish to receive the coronavirus vaccine, saying now that those at high risk of exposure to the COVID-19 or who have comorbidities that increase their risk of severe disease, may be vaccinated.

Why it matters: The WHO drew backlash for its previous guidance that did not recommend pregnant women be inoculated with vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, even though data indicated that pregnancy increased the risk of developing severe illness from the virus.

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Science helps New Zealand avoid another coronavirus lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) visits a lab at Auckland University in December. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

NYC set to restart indoor dining in February, weddings in March

Outdoor dining in New York City in January. Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that if the current coronavirus positivity in New York City holds, indoor dining will reopen at 25% capacity on Feb. 14, one of the busiest dining days of the year.

Why it matters: The forced closure of indoor dining in December caused major backlash, as New York's struggling restaurant industry had already been hit hard by pandemic restrictions. Restaurants will still be required to close at 1o p.m.