Education Commissioner Jeff Riley

{span}Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said Tuesday he plans a push to return more students to physical school buildings, beginning with elementary schools.{/span}

Curbing the coronavirus has greatly disrupted children’s education and young families’ daily lives alike. The state education commissioner’s goal is to get Bay State students back in the classroom full time as soon as possible, including all elementary school students by April.

This urgency reflects critical concerns we share for the commonwealth’s kids and parents, especially disproportionately burdened households. Part of safely realizing this goal must be acknowledging teachers for the essential workers they are and quickly getting as many vaccines in Bay State educators’ arms as possible.

There’s no way around it: Putting people indoors in close proximity amid a highly contagious pandemic increases chances of transmission. That means there are real risks with restoring classrooms to full capacity. Most medical experts agree that children are at lower risk for both infection and the more-severe effects from COVID-19. But teachers — those who not only lead classrooms but shape our children’s lives — are still at significant risk.

The irony is not lost on some that teachers are being pushed to return to often-cramped classes by school boards and state officials who continue to meet remotely and give considerably distanced news conferences. If we are going to hurry Massachusetts’ educators to the front lines of this viral battle, it is only fair that we give them a shield. That means enforcing the usual COVID protocols like masking and distancing — and also raising the priority for teachers in the state’s phased vaccine rollout.

To chart the swiftest, safest path back to full-time, in-person instruction means treating our state’s schools like other institutions deemed essential. Keeping the health-care sector functional meant prioritizing vaccination for the workers in that field: hospital personnel, first responders, nursing home staff.

Similarly, if we want to speed students’ return to optimal learning environments — something Bay State families desperately need — we should prioritize COVID shots for those who run the classrooms, as well.

This past year has been a brutal collective lesson in risk management, and there is no such thing as zero risk, COVID or otherwise. We must move quickly to mitigate the risks to children posed by protracted educational disruption. But we also can’t in good faith ask teachers to shoulder the risk of potentially deadly viral transmission without doing everything within reason to defend them.

The state’s full-court press to get kids back in class full time should come with bumping up teachers on the vaccine priority list.