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Teachers push back on Baker administration claim that unions oppose in-person school until there are COVID-19 vaccines for children

Union leaders say it’s ‘patently false,’ but Governor Charlie Baker said he stands by his administration’s statement

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and Beth Kontos, head of the AFT Massachusetts.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and Beth Kontos, head of the AFT Massachusetts.

The presidents of two statewide teachers unions in Massachusetts and the Boston Teachers Union pushed back on a claim made this week by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration that union leaders “oppose going back to the classroom until vaccines for children are developed.”

The statement — sent to members of the media Tuesday by Executive Office of Education spokeswoman Colleen Quinn — came in response to the union leaders’ frustration that they were moved down in the state’s vaccination priority list this week. Union leaders say Quinn’s statement is “patently false” and that their 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 wrote in a joint statement on Wednesday.

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While school nurses, therapists, and other behavioral health staff are already eligible for the vaccine, other educators who are not otherwise eligible due to their age or comorbidities, will now be prioritized for a coronavirus vaccine after people who are 65 or older.

The change has made educators, students, and their families feel as though they are “pawns in a chess game,” Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said in a joint statement from the unions on Tuesday. She also criticized the state for not having a concrete plan in place to vaccinate public school staff members.

Responding to the unions on Tuesday, Quinn called the union leaders’ claims “false and misleading” and said the Baker administration was “dismayed to learn these same union leaders also oppose going back to the classroom until vaccines for children are developed.”

She told the Globe Wednesday that her response was in reaction to a quote Najimy gave to the Boston Herald for a recent story.

“[It] is very unlikely that most schools will be open to all students” in the next 100 days, Najimy said in her statement to the Herald. “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.”

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Calling on Baker to retract Quinn’s statement, union leaders said Wednesday they have not taken the position Quinn asserted, and the Baker administration’s response is “taken straight from the Donald Trump playbook.”

“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,” Najimy, AFT Massachusetts president Beth Kontos, and Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang wrote in a joint statement.

In a press conference at the State House on Wednesday, Baker said he stands by his administration’s statement and urged the union leaders to work together with the state to get children back to school in-person.

“The statement we made is accurate,” he said.

He pointed to a growing body of evidence, including new research released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week, that states that in-person school during the pandemic can be safe, as long as mask-wearing and social distancing protocols are followed. And he also emphasized that many school districts, private schools, and parochial schools have had students attending school in person since the fall.

“There are people who have demonstrated this, teachers, staff, parents, and kids who have demonstrated that this can work,” Baker said. “Can’t we all just work together on behalf of the kids and give them what most of them are really hungry for, which is a chance to be in a classroom with their friends, with a teacher, face-to-face, the way it has worked in so many different places around the Commonwealth over the course of the past nine months?”

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Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.