Pressure mounted Tuesday on Governor Charlie Baker to join the majority of states in immediately vaccinating teachers, as President Biden, state lawmakers, and teachers unions intensified calls to move educators to the front of the line.
Biden’s announcement Tuesday that he plans to direct states to prioritize vaccinating teachers came as a chorus of Democratic leaders urgently pressed Baker to make teachers eligible.
“Let’s treat in-person learning as the essential service that it is,” Biden said from the White House. Teachers will be able to sign up directly through participating retail pharmacies, the administration said.
There has been fierce debate over Massachusetts’ vaccine priority schedule. Complaints that educators were not being vaccinated sooner grew louder last week after state officials announced they planned to force districts to return elementary grades to in-person instruction five days a week next month.
More than 30 other states are allowing teachers to be vaccinated. In Massachusetts, teachers are scheduled to become eligible in the next phase of the rollout, though there has not been a specific date set.
But even as teachers unions and state lawmakers urged Baker to move teachers up in line, the governor said the state’s limited supply of vaccine means it cannot yet prioritize tens of thousands of teachers. Baker has defended his timeline, stressing CDC guidance that it is safe for teachers to return to classrooms without vaccination.
“Learning in a classroom is the best and safest place for students, and public health data continues to prove that schools pose a very low risk for COVID transmission when safety protocols are followed,” a spokesman for the governor said Tuesday.
State officials did not immediately answer questions Tuesday evening about how Biden’s announcement will change the state’s vaccine plans.
The federal government also appears poised to address the supply problem that Baker has cited as a major barrier: Biden on Tuesday also pledged to provide vaccine doses for teachers directly through pharmacies.
Teachers unions and their allies were quick to praise the president — and say they hoped state officials would heed his challenge to administer at least one vaccine dose to all teachers by the end of the month.
“This makes me feel like our president values education as a priority, and I want our governor to value us as a priority,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. “I haven’t seen that yet, and I’m hoping that he’ll turn the corner.”
House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka said Baker needs to focus on vaccinating teachers over mandating their in-person attendance.
Spilka said Tuesday that if Baker wants teachers to return, “we need a vaccine program for teachers and staff that is aggressive, and we need it this month.” And Mariano, noting he was “encouraged” by Biden’s plan for educators, said “we have a lot of work to do to bring back confidence to in-person learning, and that doesn’t happen by forcing districts to reopen, but by vaccinating teachers and staff promptly.”
Twenty-one state lawmakers wrote Baker on Monday saying that the state’s 72,000 teachers, as well as school administrators and staff, should be given doses of the recently approved one shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine “so that when they are forced back into the classroom by [the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] it is safe.”
When asked about supply limitations, lawmakers said the state simply shouldn’t require teachers to return to school in person if there aren’t enough doses.
“April isn’t a realistic target when they know there isn’t the supply,” said state Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley, a Mattapan Democrat and former teacher.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley’s plan calls for elementary schools to return full time in-person in April with older students to eventually follow. Before Riley can mandate the full-time return, his plan needs approval from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is expected to vote on it Friday.
The administration has provided other resources to schools, including a testing program.
Despite the uncertainty on how many doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Massachusetts will receive, the new influx of doses is already increasing pressure on Baker to prioritize teachers.
Massachusetts teachers unions have been pressing state officials for weeks to join the majority of other states in making teachers eligible for vaccines. Some or all educators are already eligible for the vaccine in 34 states, including Connecticut and New York, according to the publication Education Week. The Los Angeles school district, the nation’s second largest, will have enough vaccine doses by the end of next week to reopen its elementary school campuses, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“There’s no time to waste,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, recommending a pilot program proposed last month by a coalition of labor organizations that would rapidly vaccinate teachers in at least 20 high-needs school districts.
Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang praised the 21 lawmakers for pressing Baker, emphasizing that a full-time return to in-person learning will require thorough health plans from state leaders.
“If they want that to happen, then it needs to go hand in hand with a thoughtful and detailed plan about how all educators and school staff are actually going to get vaccinated,” she said.
It’s even more important that teachers who are already back at school be prioritized, she said. Prekindergarten students through third-graders began returning to Boston public schools for in-person learning on Monday. Tang estimated that more than half of the union’s 7,500 members are already back inside school buildings.
Meanwhile, a petition is circulating online in a push for Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses to be allocated to teachers. As of Tuesday evening, more than 5,300 people had signed on.
Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and former chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that vaccinating teachers isn’t a prerequisite for opening schools, and that “there is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen.”
Massachusetts has improved its national ranking in vaccine distribution in recent weeks, and currently ranks first in first doses administered per capita among states with a population of more than 5 million people.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.