Teachers want to move ahead in vaccine line

Unions say shots would help get kids back in classroom

K-12 EDUCATORS are pushing to move ahead in the line for COVID-19 vaccinations, saying they deserve to get their shots sooner because of their jobs dealing directly with students.

Teachers unions, which have fought in-person learning in many communities, say vaccines are a key tool to getting children back in to the classroom.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, held an online forum on vaccinations with teachers on Thursday night where many educators pushed for inoculations sooner. She and the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers are seeking a meeting with top Baker administration officials to discuss the issue.

“We stand ready to help in any way we can to facilitate the rapid rollout of locally administered vaccines to our members,” said Najimy. She said it’s unknown if educators will be “moved to a higher priority, but that’s our goal.”

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said Thursday afternoon that’s her goal as well. “All educators need to be prioritized as we look to send more students back into our schools,” she said. “We believe school nurses and educators currently working in-person should take precedence, as many are already in daily direct contact with students who cannot socially distance or wear masks for a variety of reasons.”

Teachers in Massachusetts are currently in the second step of Phase 2 of the vaccination timetable, lumped in with transit, grocery, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works, and public health workers. That group is currently behind those with two or more comorbidities and people over 75.

Phase 1 is still ongoing, with vaccinations in congregate care settings (prisons, group homes, etc.) starting this week followed by home-based health care workers and health care workers not dealing directly with COVID patients.

The vaccination order was developed with guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a team of epidemiologists advising the Baker administration. Some states, including New York, began vaccinating educators in the past two weeks.

Gov. Charlie Baker has indicated he is reviewing new guidance suggesting people 65 and older should be moved to step one of Phase 2, but he hasn’t said teachers will move higher.

At a press conference last week, Baker was asked about teachers receiving higher priority, and responded by saying that “school is one of the safest places where adults and kids can be.”

According to the Massachusetts Teachers Association, some local communities, including Malden and Everett, are exploring if they can vaccinate teachers sooner. Worcester’s medical director, Dr. Michael Hirsh, also raised the issue when Baker visited the city’s vaccination center recently.

“We had a little discussion when Governor Baker came to the vaccination center that we’ve set up about flexibility in the order. We’re getting the vibe that there is going to be a little bit more improvising that we can do locally, depending on the priorities that we’ve identified as a local department of public health,” said Hirsh. “But thus far, what we are trying to do is earn our right to get more vaccine by following the rules.”

In Worcester, the hope is that 5,500 staff and school personnel can be vaccinated as soon as possible. The school district is mostly remote right now because ventilation systems are being fixed in order to bring back students in-person in February. The city is averaging about 200 new cases of COVID-19 a day, double the levels before Thanksgiving.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, urged patience. “We support teachers as a priority for the vaccine and, personally, I was surprised that the unions are also eager for this designation,” Koocher said. “One might think that vaccinating teachers would speed the return-to-class process and it’s not really where I thought the unions would want to go.”

Dr. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a member of the state’s vaccine advisory group, told the Boston Herald the current spot for teachers in the vaccination line is appropriate.

“I think it’s hard to imagine getting a large amount of vaccine uptake in time to rescue much of this school year even if teachers were put at the very top,” he said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, 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.

Ashley, a preschool special education teacher in a Boston suburb who asked that her last name not be used, said she wants to be vaccinated as soon as possible. She has been working in-person with 10 students since September, which she wants to keep doing. But she says keeping children that young socially distant and wearing their masks all the time is nearly impossible.

“I’d love to be moved up on the priority list,” she said. “I’m unable to distance even one foot from my students. I’m at risk of infection just by nature of going to work.”