The leaders of two statewide teachers unions and the Boston Teachers Union say they are alarmed by the new vaccination plan Massachusetts officials unveiled Monday, which prioritizes people ages 65 and older over many essential workers, including K-12 educators.
Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association; Beth Kontos, president of American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts; and Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said in a joint press release that the new prioritization, which is based on a federal recommendation, “will significantly delay the vaccination of educators and slow down a safe return to more in-person learning in public schools and colleges.”
“The governor keeps pushing schools to reopen for in-person learning more quickly, regardless of the risks to staff and students, yet he has just made it much harder to do that safely,” Kontos said in a statement Tuesday.
Governor Charlie Baker announced Monday that people who are 65 and older will move up in priority during Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination process. This puts them just after people who are ages 75 and older. People with two or more comorbidities will become eligible for vaccines at the same time as people 65 and older.
The next priority group in Phase 2 will then include a variety of essential workers, including early education and K-12 employees. Transit, grocery, utility, and food employees, plus many other categories, are also included in this group. School nurses and other therapists and behavioral health staff are already eligible to be vaccinated.
The union leaders had not opposed the state’s initial vaccine prioritization plan, which put them at the second prioritization group in Phase 2, after only people with two or more comorbidities. With Monday’s changes, they are now expecting vaccinations to be delayed for educators “by several weeks or more.”
“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,” Najimy wrote in a statement. “Our members, our students, and their families feel like pawns in a chess game — a game whose rules keep changing.”
Najimy is also frustrated the state hasn’t set up a concrete plan for vaccinating public school staff members. She said some districts are already creating their own.
“It’s like the Hunger Games,” Najimy said in the statement. “They are forcing communities to compete with one another for a scarce resource rather than establishing a fair system with clear rules. The Baker administration must do a better job of balancing the needs of people at risk because of age and other factors with recognizing that people working with students need to be vaccinated.”
Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office of Education, called the union leaders’ claims “false and misleading,” emphasizing that educators are in the first group of workers in the state that will be eligible for vaccinations after health care 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 said in a statement to the Globe. “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.”
The union leaders are also pushing for higher education faculty and staff members, as well as municipal librarians, to be moved into Phase 2 of the vaccination process.
“If you are required to work with students in person — which thousands of educators have been doing for months now — you should be vaccinated as soon as possible for the sake of your colleagues, students, and the family members those children could infect, as well as the larger community,” Tang said in the unions’ joint statement. “To increase the number of students back in schools, we need to prioritize vaccinating educators.”