Teachers complain about bump down in vaccination line

State education spokesperson calls teacher claims 'false and misleading'

TEACHERS UNIONS ARE criticizing changes Gov. Charlie Baker made to the vaccine schedule that elevate those over 65 but push educators and others lower on the priority list, a shift teachers say will delay a return to in-person learning in some districts.

On Monday, Baker said residents aged 65 to 74 are being moved up from the end of Phase 2 of the vaccination schedule to the second spot, joining those with two or more comorbidities just behind the first priority group – those 75 and older.

Teachers, who previously had been behind those over 75 and those with two or more comorbidities, now fall back along with other groups, including transit operators, grocery store employees, and public health workers. Those groups will now wait longer for vaccinations.

“It’s like the Hunger Games,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, in a statement. “They are forcing communities to compete with one another for a scarce resource rather than establishing a fair system with clear rules. We had not opposed the original prioritization list because it had a rational basis and promised to deliver vaccines to educators in February. Now, those hopes may be dashed.”

Baker changed the vaccination order on Monday after receiving guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging that those 65 and above be moved higher. There was widespread coverage of the recommendation before Baker adopted it.

Phase 2 is slated to start on February 1 and last into March. The state has not provided an exact date for when local boards of health and districts can begin vaccinating groups in Phase 2.

Najimy’s statement indicated she felt the governor should have notified teacher unions directly about his decision to move up those 65 and older. “It is an outrage that once again the people impacted by this decision have to find out about it at a press conference at the same time as everyone else, with no advance notice,” said Najimy. “Our members, our students, and their families feel like pawns in a chess game — a game whose rules keep changing.”

Colleen Quinn, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education, issued a statement saying the claims of teachers union leaders are “false and misleading.”

“Teachers are scheduled to receive a vaccine in Phase Two – the first group of workers in the state to be prioritized for the vaccine after healthcare workers and first responders. The administration is calling on these union leaders to be honest partners in the effort to educate children in classrooms,” she wrote. “Instead, these leaders attack good faith efforts to go back to school despite overwhelming evidence that it is safe to do so, and the administration was dismayed to learn these same union leaders also oppose going back to the classroom until vaccines for children are developed. There is no legitimate evidence from any public health or medical body to back up the union leaders’ claims, and their tactics will only exacerbate the emotional and educational harm students are experiencing as a result of being out of the classroom.”

Chandler Creedon, Jr., the interim school psychologist for the Westwood Public Schools, said state education officials should be advocating for speedy vaccination of educators. “I don’t understand why [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] isn’t pounding on the governor’s door to vaccinate teachers right away,” said Creedon, who is working in-person.

Creedon interrupted his retirement to join the school district to fill in for a school psychologist who was pregnant and took time off out of fear of the virus and how it could impact her family. The increase in COVID-19 cases has shut down schools in the district temporarily as recently as last Friday, which Creedon says makes it difficult for teachers’ planning, and his own work testing students to see if they should have high needs support.

He said he knows that there are some who criticize K-12 staff for wanting to move up in line.

“No matter how you cut it, someone will feel like it’s not fair to them. if you get teachers vaccinated ASAP, you could open schools full-time, have students there, and it frees up parents to get back to work, and hopefully the economy begins to change,” he said.

Home care, hospital, non-COVID-facing health care workers, nursing home and congregate care employees and residents, and first responders have all been part of Phase 1. Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders have defended the prioritization, saying they’ve conferred with health care experts and the state’s COVID-19 advisory committee over the matter.

On social media, some people have said teachers should wait their turn. Kristi, a third-grade teacher in a Worcester County school district who asked that her last name not be used, said no teacher wants to take the spot of someone who’s vulnerable. “However, we are expected to put ourselves at risk every day in order to keep children in school and learning. I do not believe we should be so far down on the list,” she said.

Asked about transit workers and others who are bunched with educators on the vaccination list, Kristi said teachers should be given priority. “Transit workers have an important job. They are also at risk. I wouldn’t deny them getting their vaccinations. The push has been to keep the kids in school, though. In order to do that safely we need to vaccinate our teachers,” Kristi said.

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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.

Kristi said she wouldn’t be opposed to jumping ahead of people who smoke. “While I understand that being a smoker may put you at a higher risk for serious complications, I don’t believe someone making the choice to smoke should put them ahead of others who haven’t made that choice,” she said. “That’s not a comorbidity. That’s a deliberate choice.”

The Department of Public Health, state education officials, and teachers’ unions will be meeting to discuss vaccinations on Thursday.