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Unions push Baker to back plan for firefighters to vaccinate educators, school workers

Freshman students in class at Brockton High School.
Freshman students in class at Brockton High School.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Unions representing teachers and firefighters expect to meet Wednesday with the state’s Health and Human Services secretary on their proposal to have firefighters administer vaccine doses to thousands of school workers — a program they say would facilitate a more timely and convenient inoculation of educators across Massachusetts.

The meeting, coming just a day before K-12 teachers, school staff, and child-care workers become eligible for vaccinations at state sites, would make it easier for them to get vaccinated at their schools and during hours that accommodate classroom schedules, union officials said.

“Our educators are working during the day, and the majority of them are already in schools . . . and they can’t be at a computer all day hitting ‘refresh’ trying to get an appointment,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. “It would be much better if we could deliver our vaccine to school sites.”

Kontos said unions have met four times with state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders about the proposal, and will speak with her again Wednesday.

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The proposal is supported by the state’s two largest teachers unions, as well as the Boston Teachers Union, the state firefighters union, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, and other labor groups, including those representing nurses and steelworkers, according to a letter outlining the “Last Mile Vaccine Delivery Proposal” to state leaders when it was first proposed last month.

It would also provide an alternative for educators instead having to navigate a cumbersome state process that has stymied thousands of people already eligible for vaccines — including those age 65 and older, plus those with two comorbidities — who have tried repeatedly to book appointments without success, they said.

On Thursday, about 400,000 K-12 teachers, school staff, and child-care workers will become eligible to sign up for vaccine appointments at 170 sites in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker announced last week. Baker’s announcement came after President Biden said he wanted all teachers vaccinated by the end of March.

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Richard MacKinnon Jr., president of Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, said the unions’ proposal is based on the process that was used to vaccinate first responders in their local communities when they became eligible in January. Police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians became eligible as part of Phase 1 of the vaccine rollout the beginning of the year.

The first responders were vaccinated in their workplaces, he said, which made it easier to get more people vaccinated quickly. With Baker’s approval, MacKinnon said, the school vaccination effort would be similar and could be mobilized with 24 hours’ notice.

“We do think that this would be the absolute best way to get the teachers vaccinated in a timely manner,” MacKinnon said. “They do a lot for the communities and the schools. . . . The least we can do is offer a vaccine in the place they work in.”

When asked about the upcoming meeting, Kate Reilly, a state COVID-19 Response Command Center spokeswoman, responded in a statement saying that Sudders “has recurring meetings with [Education Commissioner Jeffrey] Riley and the teachers union to keep an open line of communication.”

The Baker administration is also finalizing plans for exclusive educator vaccine days at the state’s mass vaccination sites, according to Reilly, who released no additional details Sunday.

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On Sunday, the Department of Public Health reported 1,281 new confirmed coronavirus cases, bringing the state’s total to about 559,000. New deaths increased by 41, bringing the state’s pandemic death toll to 16,085.

The department reported that the number of vaccinations administered in the state rose by 48,234, reaching a total of more than 2.1 million.

Aside from the state vaccine rollout, the Biden administration required that pharmacies participating in the US Centers for Disease Control’s vaccination program set aside all unbooked vaccination slots for teachers, school staff, and child-care workers March 2 through March 31, according to the CDC.

In Massachusetts, CVS booked about 25,000 appointments for people who self-identified as a teacher Wednesday through Friday, according to Joe Goode, a company spokesman.

Baker has said the state’s vaccine rollout has been hampered by significant limitations on supplies from the federal government. He predicted it might take about a month for all eligible people to get a first dose appointment.

The state’s sign-up process also has been criticized for being difficult to use. Open slots are hard to find and when they do appear, they are quickly snapped up.

Union leaders said they would coordinate with Mascon Medical, which would contract needed personnel, identify vaccination sites, and work with municipal officials to implement the proposal, they said in a Feb. 10 letter to Sudders, Baker, and Dr. Monica Bharel, the state’s public health commissioner.

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Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the proposal also calls for vaccinating thousands of faculty and staff at the state’s higher education campuses along with K-12 school employees.

Currently, those higher education workers are included in the rollout with the general public, which is slated to begin in April, according to the state’s vaccination plan.

“We do have high hopes, and high expectations,” Najimy said. “The number one thing is to get the vaccination process started.”

The unions’ upcoming meeting with Sudders follows Friday’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education vote to give Riley the power to force school districts to resume full-time in-person learning.

In a statement, a Baker administration spokesman Saturday said educator vaccinations are not a prerequisite to in-person learning. About 80 percent of school districts now offer either in-person or hybrid learning.

Riley has said he will create a waiver process for districts that cannot bring students back full time, though details have not been released.

Kontos, the head of AFT Massachusetts, warned against moving too quickly to bring all students and staff back into buildings without ensuring school workers had been vaccinated.

This week, she said, educators across the state will be conducting actions such as walking into work together in groups to call attention to their concerns, as well as attending local school committee meetings to caution officials against a full return to classrooms before teachers and staff can be vaccinated.

“We have been in schools with all the proper precautions. We want to continue doing that,” Kontos said.

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Jennifer Bretsch, a first-grade teacher at the Grace Farrar Cole Elementary School in Norwell, said the effort needed to secure an appointment can be frustrating.

After repeated attempts over the past few days, Bretsch lucked out when she tried the CVS website around 4:30 a.m. Saturday. She was able to schedule her first dose appointment Tuesday in Holbrook, with a second shot three weeks later.

But when she tried minutes later to secure appointments for her husband, a Quincy High School teacher, the slots had all been booked, she said.

Goode, the CVS spokesman, said in a statement: “As more vaccine supply becomes available from the federal government, we will be able to expand to more CVS Pharmacy locations and schedule more appointments.”

Bretsch’s students are on a hybrid schedule, she said, and prioritizing teacher vaccinations is an important step toward restoring full-time instruction.

“The vaccination feels, to me, like the first tangible move toward health for everybody,” she said. “It feels like we’re moving forward.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.