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Because I used to be a secondary-school teacher (rather more than a few years ago now) & also because I interact a lot with school teachers, I’m following that sector’s current pay negotiations with quite a bit of interest. One of the conditions that the teachers’ unions have placed on the table is the issue of employer-funded influenza vaccinations.

My own employer provides these. And I think they’re great. I’m not going to expose my students to infection, & similarly, I’m much less likely to pick it up from them. (And if I’m sick, no-one else takes my lectures; they’re cancelled. So there’s a strong tendency among staff to come in to class regardless.) Consequently this seems a no-brainer to me. And yet…

… in (I think) the Herald’s letters columns last week, a correspondent complained about this. What health risk, they said, could possibly be posed by teaching in a classroom?

Obviously this person doesn’t follow the news particularly closely. Every time there’s a virulent strain of influenza doing the rounds, news reports tell us how schools are having to deal with large numbers of absent students – and of teachers. There are costs to both.

If kids are home sick then there’s probably a parent home looking after them (unless they’re over 14, & frankly with a child with anything more than sniffles & a bit of a headache I’d be worried about leaving them alone, even then), which means taking sick leave or – if on a wage – losing pay. Not to mention that the child is missing out on classes – a big thing, if it’s an examination year & you’re sick for more than a day or two.

And if teachers are away, well, what happens to their classes? If the school can find a relieving teacher to stand in for them, that’s good, although the reliever may not actually be trained in the same subjects as the sick individual, so the classes aren’t going to cover the material so well. If there are no relievers available, then the school administrators have to fall back on other teaching staff, who end up taking extra classes in the ‘free’ periods, during which they’d otherwise be doing marking, preparation, report-writing, & so on. And (unless things have changed a lot from when I was a teacher) the person calling in sick is still expected to provide materials/instructions for whoever will be standing in for them.

So providing vaccinations for teaching staff brings with it a lot of benefits. Teachers are less likely to pick up the virus from some among those 30 or so students in their classroom, who’ve come to school when they should be at home in bed. The schools won’t have to spend so much on calling in relieving teachers, or ask other staff to pick up the load. Students’ learning is less likely to be disrupted through having their regular teachers off sick. And those students are also less likely to be exposed to the current flu strain(s) by a teacher who’s come in to school to teach that day even though they’re feeling well under par.

And because those benefits are so broad, having employer-funded vaccinations for teachers seems – to me – to be a very reasonable requenst to put on the table.

(Those who are interested in this issue might also like to read Mark Crislip’s latest post on Science-Based Medicine, on whether influenza vaccination should be mandatory for health-care workers. Personally this one seems even more of a no-brainer, considering the potential for said health-care workers to pass on the virus to patients whose health is already compromised.)