With a push to prioritize vaccinating teachers and reopen schools, getting shots in the arms of child care workers is just as important to get back to normal as soon as possible—and to keep families safe.

An image of a nanny putting hand sanitizer on kids.
Credit: Getty Images.

Since day one of President Joe Biden's term in office, safely reopening schools for in-person instruction has been a priority. In fact, it's something he's vowed to make happen in his first 100 days. Doing that means following the guidance of health experts and making sure educators are vaccinated, but with states calling the shots on, well, COVID-19 shots, some teachers have struggled to get a coveted appointment. And when it comes to other child care workers, like daycare employees and nannies, vaccine eligibility is one big question mark.

COVID-19 vaccine rollout began with limited distribution, with health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities prioritized first, but it was ultimately up to states to decide when, exactly, educators could receive their shots. While some states did group teachers with other essential workers to allow vaccinations on the earlier side of things, getting an appointment has proven tough and, depending on where they live, not even an option for many. Without a real master vaccination distribution plan, many child care workers like nannies and daycare staff have been left out in the cold.

On March 2, Biden updated Americans that there'd be enough vaccine doses for adults by the end of May and acknowledged the fact that educators—including child care workers and school staff—are essential workers and should be treated as such. "I am directing every state to prioritize educators for vaccination," Biden tweeted. "We want every educator, school staff member, and child-care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of this month. It's time to treat in-person learning like the essential service that it is."

While that sentiment is spot on, the reality is that getting child care workers across the country vaccinated isn't as simple as flipping a switch. In New Jersey, for example, vaccine eligibility is set to open up for teachers, school staff, and licensed child care workers on March 15, but the supply-demand problems in the state have already caused issues—with scheduling an appointment proving nearly impossible. Volunteers have even stepped up to help seniors secure their place in line. It can take days or weeks to lock in an appointment, so getting at least one vaccine dose by the end of March seems unfeasible. And that doesn't even take into account the daycare staff who don't have hours to spend refreshing vaccine registration sites or the babysitters and nannies who don't hold a license or—how will they fare?

"Nannies are characterized specifically as child care workers by federal statute, and have been considered essential workers in nearly every state," says Laura Schroeder, president of the International Nanny Association and a full-time nanny in Charleston, South Carolina. If a nanny is unable to work due to illness, so too are their employers. Even so, Schroeder points out that many states are prioritizing vaccinating older or high-risk Americans and nannies are being excluded. "As essential workers, it is crucial for nannies and all child care workers to be vaccinated as soon as possible so that our national economy can continue on," she says. "Nannies care for the children of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and many others who are directly caring for COVID-19 patients."

Some experts believe child care professionals should move to the top of the vaccine list. "Without child care, families cannot work," says Kim Kruckel, executive director of the Child Care Law Center in Berkeley, California, which fights for fair policies for children, families, andproviders. "Yet this is a highly specialized field in which it is nearly impossible to practice the protocols to keep the virus from spreading." It's true, young children may have a harder time keeping a distance, wearing masks, or washing their hands often enough. And with many nannies working and child care centers open throughout the entire pandemic, they could be at a higher risk than other educators.

"Child care providers should be prioritized above teachers who are not teaching in the classroom, whose occupational risk is lower," says Kruckel. "For example, in California most school districts are closed and teachers are teaching over Zoom. Child care providers are taking care of school-aged children, actually working with the children in person. Therefore, their occupational exposure is higher than that of teachers."

Access to vaccines is not only important for the health and well-being of caregivers, it can restore confidence in both workers and parents. "Although we have remained open the entire pandemic my team continues to encounter challenges related to vaccine access," says Carol Renee Haynes, a registered nurse and Kiddie Academy franchisee with four early learning centers in Ohio. Until March, "Ohio [had] not prioritized vaccinations for early childhood teachers or support staff, and this is extremely concerning. Parents and caregivers are hopeful, and I encourage families to begin to ask providers if their teachers are vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus."

Kruckel also notes that "child care providers are predominantly women of color in California, a group that are suffering a higher mortality rate." According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 93 percent of child care workers are women and nearly half are Black, Latino, or Asian—all groups that are at an increased risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19.

"It's important to remember that child care is a racial justice issue," says Kruckel. "Most child care employees and nannies are people of color and have been excluded from society's resources and benefits for a long time. And yet without them, working professional families would not be able to continue."

It's too soon to tell just how smooth the process of actually getting a COVID-19 vaccine will be now that Biden has ordered states to move daycare staff and nannies up on the distribution list, but at least there's a glimmer of hope for the hundreds of thousands of child care workers across the U.S. who have put their lives on the line during the pandemic.

"Just like teachers, nannies have been amazingly resilient over the past year," says Schroeder. "While many experienced the loss of their job or reduction of hours, almost all were affected with increased job duties like assisting with virtual schooling, having to navigate a work environment with parent employers also home working, and a complete loss of the nanny social life they experienced prior to COVID-19 with the loss of playdates, library storytimes, playground outings, and field trips to museums and zoos."

The same can be said about daycare staff, many of which worked through the height of the pandemic to give children a safe space to play and learn. It's time to treat child care workers like the heroes they are—and give them the protection they deserve.