When Tyler ISD board members on Aug. 23 approved a $500 bonus for teachers who receive their COVID-19 vaccine (and show proof), and when they discussed additional sick leave benefits for those same teachers, they—perhaps unwittingly—undermined the lessons we’ve been teaching our children for generations.

“It’s okay to discriminate against certain people” those policies say, “as long as we think it’s for their own good.” The lesson is bad, and the precedent is worse—teachers and other school personnel who medically can’t get the vaccine, or have a religious or other objection to receiving it, are second-class citizens.

 Parents like me spoke out against the policy at Monday night’s board meeting. We voiced our concerns. The board didn’t listen, and Superintendent Marty Crawford countered with his own opinion: “I have a concern about the illness that’s out there right now (COVID-19), I have some concerns about the lack of vaccination rates we have here in Smith County amongst our adults, of which our teaching staff is made up.”

But here are the facts. Teachers in Texas were among the first to be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Since March 3, teachers, all school employees and all childcare workers have been eligible to be vaccinated. Vaccination clinics have been held for months at Harvey Hall and other sites, including neighborhood pharmacies and even grocery stores.

It’s safe to assume that any teacher who hasn’t received a vaccine yet hasn’t done so by either necessity or choice. So let’s look at those, in light of TISD’s bonus policy. There are medical reasons why some teachers can’t receive a vaccine. Should they be treated differently because of a circumstance beyond their control? Others choose not to, for various reasons (some of them religious, and therefore sacrosanct). Vaccine hesitancy certainly hasn’t been allayed by the conflicting messages we’ve received from health care authorities in the last 18 months.

In fact, many teachers unions are against vaccine mandates. There are simply too many individual circumstances. TISD’s policy is discriminatory by its very nature. It disqualifies some teachers from equal pay or benefits based on medical status. It does not reward performance, but rather adherence to the “correct” side of a highly politicized issue. It is simply unfair that some teachers will be disqualified because of their religious objections or medical necessity.

Finally, I have concerns about privacy. Those teachers who can’t or won’t receive a vaccine will be singled out—if not overtly (because of HIPAA rules), then by the simple fact that public employee salaries (and bonuses) are public information. We’re seeing dystopian futures unfold even now, as Australia arrests people for objecting to vaccine mandates and people take to the streets in France to protest vaccine “passports.”

There’s a better approach for the Tyler Independent School District. Let’s take those federal funds and spend them where they should be spent—on our students. I am a special education advocate by trade, and I have seen very troubling regression in many students over the last year and a half. The pandemic upended the spring semester of 2020 and went on to make 2021 unlike any academic year before it. The federal funds TISD set aside could be used to help our most at-risk students catch up.

So enough with the division. Enough with the divisiveness. We are not two classes of Americans—the vaccinated and the unclean. We are all Americans, we are all Texans, we are all Tylerites. Let’s keep our focus at Tyler ISD on providing the best education we can for our children.

Discrimination—even with the best of intentions—is still discrimination. We’ve taught our children that separate is never equal. Let’s not reverse that lesson now, by our own ill-considered example.