Boston teachers union takes lead in embracing vaccine mandates

Tang says ‘the facts and the science’ can’t be ignored

JESSICA TANG says it only makes sense at this point based on the data and science. But that kind of logic isn’t always driving the COVID conversation, so the Boston Teachers Union president’s comments earlier this week in support of a vaccine mandate for teachers is big news in the fight to contain the pandemic. 

Lots of colleges are requiring students and staff to be vaccinated this fall, a range of private employers are beginning to adopt such policies, and yesterday the Boston area’s three largest hospital networks said they would require all employees to be vaccinated by the fall. But school districts and the public sector in general have been slower to move toward vaccine mandates. 

“It’s really hard to ignore the facts and the science that show increased vaccinations, testing, and masking are the keys to mitigation to keep everyone safe,” said Tang, who supports a mandate that teachers either get vaccinated or to submit to regular COVID testing.

Her new position follows comments on Sunday by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, BTU’s parent national union, who said vaccines should now be mandated for teachers as school districts prepare for in-person learning this fall. 

Massachusetts teachers unions have advocated strongly for better ventilation systems and other efforts to mitigate spread of COVID. And they decried a shift in the state’s early vaccine rollout in January that moved them down a notch on the priority list, with Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy likening it to “the Hunger Games.” 

While clamoring for greater vaccine access, no Massachusetts teachers unions had embraced — until now — the idea of requiring them. 

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, praised Tang’s position. The teachers union supporting this,” he said of a vaccine mandate, “I think goes a long way toward getting some consensus that this is the right way to go toward minimizing the danger to both adults and children.” 

Tang said she does not have data on the share of Boston teachers who have been vaccinated but said the “vast majority” have been inoculated. 

Neither the Mass. Teachers Association nor the state branch of the American Federation of Teachers that the Boston union is part of has announced support for a vaccine mandate. 

Jessica Tang

Schools represent a particularly challenging setting for dealing with COVID and the much more transmissible Delta variant, since children under 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated. Even among older children who can now receive immunizations, vaccination rates in Boston remain very low. As of August 3, only 27 percent of Boston residents aged 12 to 15 had received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. 

Scott said superintendents he talks to across the state “don’t see any way out of this without having some sort of mandated teacher vaccination or regular testing.” He said safety is the  paramount responsibility of schools. “How do you guarantee safety without taking advantage of all the measures that are at your disposal to achieve it?” he said. 

That said, Scott said districts have not yet rushed to mandate vaccines for teachers and other staff. In Boston, the teachers union seems to be out ahead of the city administration. Acting Mayor Kim Janey has held back on issuing a vaccination mandate for municipal employees, but a spokesperson suggests it may be coming. 

“The city is working with our unions towards a mandate to require vaccination or regular testing for all City of Boston employees,” a city spokesperson said in a statement. She added, “Mayor Janey will have more to share on this soon.” 

Municipal leaders will need to work out any vaccine mandates with unions representing public employees. “The question of vaccine requirements is much more complicated because of the need to bargain and the large number of bargaining units,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. He said a community could end up dealing with a dozen different unions while wanting to “come up with a consistent set of rules.” 

For Boston, there are already indications of the challenge the city will face in getting all unions on board with the same policy. 

Last Friday, the local news site Universal Hub reported on a letter from Boston firefighters union president John Soares to Local 718 members suggesting the union could end up in court over any vaccine mandate “if it cannot be decided at the bargaining table.” His letter said the union believes a mandate would be “a change in working conditions and violates the terms and conditions of our employment.” 

That seems to suggest the union would be looking for some type of concession or compensation in exchange for a vaccine mandate. Soares did not respond to a message. 

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Tang said the teachers union would not seek anything in return for a mandate — though she did raise one potential sticking point that would have to be worked out. “I think what needs to be determined is, if you don’t get vaccinated and refuse regular testing, then what?” she said. 

As with so much relating to the pandemic, things can change quickly, and it’s possible that the Boston Teachers Union will soon look less like an outlier than a leader. On Wednesday morning, SEIU Local 509, which represents nearly 20,000 human service and higher education workers, including 8,000 state employees, announced its support for a vaccine mandate for its members.