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Baker, teachers unions trade barbs as educators seek quicker vaccines or delay to full school openings

A dispute over COVID-19 vaccines erupted Thursday as administration and labor officials swapped bitter statements

Vickie Schlosser, a music teacher at Scituate High School, got the COVID-19 vaccine from Chris Bradley, a Marshfield firefighter paramedic.
Vickie Schlosser, a music teacher at Scituate High School, got the COVID-19 vaccine from Chris Bradley, a Marshfield firefighter paramedic.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Teachers union officials called Thursday for a delay in plans to return to full-time in-person learning after the state harshly rejected their request that educators get COVID-19 vaccinations in schools, capping a day of escalating conflict with the administration of Governor Charlie Baker.

The skirmish came on the same day that teachers, school employees, and child care workers began booking appointments for vaccines amid plans for them to fully return to in-person instruction next month.

Teachers unions had asked the state to let teachers get shots in schools to speed and simplify the process. But the Baker administration flatly rejected the school-based vaccination plan after a 45-minute meeting with labor representatives.

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In a statement, a senior adviser to Baker criticized the idea as unfair to other groups eligible to book vaccines.

“The Baker-Polito administration is dismayed that despite reasonable efforts to prioritize educator vaccinations, the teachers’ unions continue to demand the Commonwealth take hundreds of thousands of vaccines away from the sickest, oldest and most vulnerable residents in Massachusetts and divert them to the unions’ members, 95 percent of which are under age 65,” said Tim Buckley, the adviser.

“The administration implores the unions to do the math: the state only gets 150,000 first doses every week,” Buckley added. “There are about one million eligible residents comprised of educators, older adults and people with serious health conditions. Diverting hundreds of thousands of vaccines to an exclusive, teacher-only distribution system would deny the most vulnerable and the most disproportionately impacted residents hundreds of thousands of vaccines.”

Union leaders shot back, calling the administration’s characterization misleading. Teachers, they said, are seeking a select portion of vaccines for educators, and do not intend to crowd out other groups.

“The administration’s mischaracterization of educators as somehow seeking to take vaccines away from the sick and elderly is untrue and defamatory,” the American Federation of Teachers, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the Boston Teachers Union said in a joint statement. “We suggested . . . that some of the doses designated for educators via the mass vaccination sites be sent to local communities so they could be administered to school employees efficiently and effectively at the local level, with facilitation by firefighters and nurses.”

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Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, argued that if the state is unable to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of educators, it should delay the mandated return to in-person learning — April 5 for elementary school and April 28 for middle school — until after April vacation for all grades.

“We thought we were going to be able to have more vaccines for educators and through local programs,” Najimy said. “Since that isn’t happening, we have to change our expectations for realistic timelines.”

Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the state’s Education Department, said Massachusetts “is not going to delay the full reopening.” State officials pointed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that teachers do not need to be vaccinated for schools to open.

The fight over educator vaccinations has rekindled an old rivalry between the governor and teachers unions, which in 2016 successfully campaigned against a Baker-supported referendum question to expand charter schools.

At a news conference on Thursday, Baker said he is steadfastly opposed to the in-school vaccination proposal, arguing that teachers “were looking for their own vaccine and to not participate in the process that everyone else participates in.”

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“We’re just not going to play that game,” Baker added.

In the early stages of the vaccine rollout, other groups were immunized at their workplaces, including hospital employees and nursing home staffs.

Baker has pressed schools to reopen, pointing to high absenteeism, learning gaps, and increased isolation and mental illness among students during nearly a year of remote learning. President Biden has also made school reopenings a priority, but emphasized teacher vaccinations as key to that goal.

Teachers unions have already secured significant victories in recent weeks. Baker long resisted setting a date for teachers to become eligible for appointments, agreeing to March 11 only after Biden said he wanted educators vaccinated this month. Teachers began scheduling appointments at state sites on Thursday, and will be able to seek appointments through the new preregistration system Friday. Since last week, they have also been able to book shots through a federal program at CVS pharmacies under Biden’s order.

In another accommodation for teachers, Baker announced on Wednesday that the mass vaccination sites would be dedicated to educator-only appointments on four weekend days in the next month.

The unions, however, argued that the 25,000 vaccines that will be available on the educators-only days are inadequate to cover everybody, forcing educators to seek appointments at other locations that may require them to take time off. Moreover, they say, they will not have enough time to get vaccinated before classrooms fill up.

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“The governor is asking us to be patient as we wait for vaccines, but he’s not himself being patient about filling our classrooms with students,” said Beth Kontos, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

Some communities are setting aside doses for teachers on their own. On Thursday and Friday, for example, hundreds of doses have been largely reserved for teachers on the South Shore at a regional site at the Marshfield Fairgrounds. Boston Public Schools also announced Wednesday that it would begin operating an educator vaccination clinic soon, using the city’s supply from the state.

Vickie Schlosser, a music teacher at Scituate High School, said that her students have attended on a limited hybrid basis throughout the year, but that teachers should be fully vaccinated before schools get more crowded.

“I definitely feel more comfortable with the idea of everybody being back in school, being fully vaccinated,” said Schlosser, who received her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine in Marshfield on Thursday. “If all the teachers are going to be fully vaccinated, that’s going to make a world of difference.”

The teachers groups have the support of 48 state lawmakers, who signed a letter on Thursday calling their plan “the surest path to quick, efficient, and accessible vaccination.” The letter also called on the administration to allow more flexibility in reopening schools because “some districts will be ready to reopen faster than others.”

But some parents have found themselves growing impatient with teachers’ vaccine demands, saying that the immunizations have become politicized and that their children are the ones paying the steepest price.

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“I feel [that the teachers unions have] missed an opportunity to really lead heroically here,’' said Neatherly Brenzel, a Jamaica Plain mother who has four children in Boston schools. She said unions have negotiated too stringently during the pandemic before a return to learning: “The union didn’t give those teachers . . . the chance to do that and really be heroes for the city and for the families with children.”

The unions defend their efforts throughout the pandemic as making schools safer for in-person learning, such as by ensuring all bathroom dispensers are equipped with soap.

Sharon Harrison, a school nurse at the William Carter School in Boston, said she understands both sides of the dispute, but, with schools reopening, “teachers really do need their vaccines.”

“I can’t tell the governor how to run his stuff, but . . . what do we do?” she said. “We can’t make [the vaccine] ourselves.”

Meghan Irons, Naomi Martin, and Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.