Teacher unions cry foul over Baker claim

Tension between educators, administration rising

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Wednesday said he is standing by a statement issued by his administration accusing teacher union leaders of making false and misleading claims about the COVID-19 vaccine prioritization process.

The union leaders took umbrage at the comment and demanded a retraction, but Baker wasn’t having it.

“The statement we made is accurate, and we’re happy to share it with anyone who wants it,” Baker said at a State House press conference.

The back and forth kerfuffle is a sign that the long-simmering tension between the governor and teacher unions over returning to in-person learning is reaching a boiling point. The unions have resisted calls to return to in-person learning, despite claims by the governor that it is safe. And the teachers unions lately have suggested their members deserve greater priority in receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, which they say is the key to returning to in-person learning safely.

On Tuesday, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers decried being bumped down in the vaccination priority order by the governor’s decision to elevate people over 65 above them.

Merrie Najimy, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the move was a surprise and likened the situation to the Hunger Games, with different groups fighting over vaccines in an environment where there are no rules.

Yet Baker’s move was based on guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and had been talked about for weeks in the press.

Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education, issued a statement calling the claims false and misleading and also suggesting the union leaders were opposed to having their members return to the classroom until vaccines are developed for children.

“This is patently false. We have never made such a statement individually or collectively. We are astonished that the governor would fabricate an inflammatory assertion on something as important as the COVID-19 vaccine,” said the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Boston Teachers Union and the American Federation of Teachers in a joint press release.

“Our position has always been that educators should be among the first frontline workers to receive vaccines because they often work with children in confined spaces,” they continued, adding that more than half of educators are working in person, and 3,500 have contracted COVID-19, along with nearly 6,000 students.

The union leaders called the administration’s statement “appalling” and taken “straight from the Donald Trump playbook.”

Quinn later said via email that the sentence regarding unions’ opposition to returning educators to the classroom until children were vaccinated, was in reference to a quote from Najimy in the Boston Herald on January 23.

In the article, Najimy expressed hope that with more testing and vaccines  more schools may be able to open in the next 100 days. “However, it is very unlikely that most schools will be open to all students in that time,” she said. “They won’t even have started vaccinating children in that period, so children will still be vulnerable to both getting the disease and spreading it.”

Reached by phone, Najimy said that the state had made a “complete distortion” of the quotes in the Herald. She said she was responding to President Biden’s plan to reopen schools in a hundred days, which she said is unrealistic.

“That is a far cry from saying that our position is we can’t go back to school until all students are vaccinated,” she said.

She said the lack of communication between unions and the Baker administration was disheartening, and that school officials and unions had already existing infrastructures in place (like for flu clinics) which could be tapped into to help guide speedy vaccination of education staff.

Similarly, AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos said “this is not our position at all,” in response to Quinn’s statement, and that she would let the MTA president speak for herself.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Freelance reporter, Formerly worked for CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“We don’t even need every adult to be vaccinated. The governor just needs to be genuine about his conversation that we need to be back in classrooms. I don’t have faith educators will be fully vaccinated by summer,” she said.

The unions will be meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Jeffrey Riley, the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, on a call tomorrow.