The leaders of three Massachusetts teachers unions are backing emergency legislation filed by state lawmakers that would require the education commissioner to give districts more time to prepare for the full-time return of elementary school students to classrooms.
Officials with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, and the Boston Teachers Union also said the legislation would allow more school workers — who became eligible for vaccines last Thursday — to be able to receive doses if they choose.
“Rushing this without proper planning would be unsafe and unwise — both for safety and instruction,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union.
The unions spoke out Sunday as Boston opened a vaccination clinic at the Gallivan Community Center in Mattapan solely for public school teachers and other School Department workers. Officials aim to vaccinate about 2,000 school staff members with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine over the coming two weeks, then have them return next month for second doses.
“This is a really important step for our teachers and our educators and all of our staff,” said Brenda Cassellius, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Health reported 1,508 new confirmed coronavirus cases Sunday, bringing Massachusetts’ total to 568,616. The department also reported 30 new confirmed coronavirus deaths, bringing the state’s total to 16,311.
The number of coronavirus vaccinations administered in Massachusetts rose by 55,455, to 2,522,847, state officials reported.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control, has said that teachers do not have to be vaccinated in order for schools to safely reopen. But President Biden, who tapped Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston as labor secretary, has prioritized teacher vaccinations and directed states to inoculate educators by the end of the month.
Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday appeared to close the door on a proposal from several unions, including teachers and firefighters, to provide vaccinations to school staff in their communities. Baker has set aside four weekend days over the next month to be exclusively for educators at the mass vaccination sites.
The state’s education commissioner, Jeffrey Riley, has ordered school districts to return pre-kindergarten through grade 5 students to classrooms for full-time instruction by April 5, with middle-schoolers expected back by April 28.
Sarah Finlaw, a Baker spokeswoman, said in a statement Sunday night that the administration is committed to working with Riley and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to end remote learning and bring elementary school students safely back to the classroom starting April 5.
“More than 80 percent of school districts are already teaching students in-person or hybrid. Months of data from right here in Massachusetts and countless studies from world class medical organizations have made clear that schools are safe for in person learning. No legitimate public health or medical organization, nor the CDC, recommends vaccinating all teachers before reopening schools,” Finlaw said.
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said it is unfair and unrealistic to require school staff to return to full in-person classes without the protection of the vaccine.
The state should give districts more time to implement safety measures and for workers to schedule vaccine appointments, she said.
“It’s leaving the majority of people who work in schools fending for themselves, and we’re running out of time,” Kontos said. “I’m just frustrated that we are not prioritizing the people who are going to be in these classes.”
Kontos said she knows what a classroom with 30 students in it feels like.
“It’s tight,” she said. “To go back to that again, without vaccine, is scary.”
Merrie Najimy, who leads the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said that since the unions’ proposal to vaccinate teachers was rejected last week, groups of teachers and parents in many communities are jumping in to help school staff members schedule appointments. She praised the volunteer efforts, but said that’s not how the system should work.
“This whole process is being rushed, being pushed by unelected bureaucrats who are out of touch with reality,” Najimy said. “They don’t understand the amount of change that has to happen in the next couple of weeks to be ready.”
State representatives Lindsay Sabadosa and James Hawkins filed emergency legislation Wednesday that would prevent Riley from requiring that districts return to in-person learning before April 26.
The bill, which has the support of 10 lawmakers, was created with input from local school committees, Sabadosa said in a Sunday interview. Sabadosa pointed to a recent Globe story that highlighted the work that districts were putting into a return, and noted that some districts do not expect to make the state’s deadline.
“I don’t think anyone’s goal is to not have any in-person return. But we want it to be equitable,” Sabadosa said. “We want the districts to be ready.”
Sabadosa said that is the wrong approach. “That’s not the role of the state. Our kids deserve way better than that.”
In Boston, the schools’ vaccination site will run from Sunday through Thursday over the next two weeks and is expected to offer about 200 appointments a day to educators and bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers. It will then close for three weeks and reopen mid-April for the required second round of shots.
The teachers union heads lauded Boston’s vaccination plan for school staff in separate interviews.
“We are certainly grateful to Mayor Walsh and his administration for working with us proactively,” Tang said. “I certainly think the hope is that other districts and cities will work collaboratively with their teachers unions to help expedite the process.”
Boston’s public school teachers have been returning to classrooms over the past several months and want to be working in-person with their students, Tang said. But they remain concerned about the dangers posed by COVID-19.
“The risks are still very real, and teachers want nothing more than to teach the way they know how, to be able to hug their students, and be able to interact in a much more normal way,” Tang said. “But we cannot ignore that the pandemic still exists.”
Cassellius and Marty Martinez, who leads the city’s Office Health and Human Services, emphasized the importance of vaccinating school workers during a press conference Sunday at the site.
Martinez said the city also is making vaccines available to school workers through other means, including local community health sites.
“This about essential workers — essential workers who work in our schools,” Martinez said.
Tang said the union is working with the city and schools to open a second vaccination site at its Dorchester headquarters, but officials do not have a supply of vaccine from the state for it, she said. Boston Public Schools have about 10,000 staff members.
Among those city school workers who received their first dose Sunday morning was Jen Scioli, a third-grade teacher at Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston. She said in an interview that she is looking forward to a full return to classrooms.
“Getting back to what school used to look like. Being with the kids, hugging the kids,” Scioli said. “Just being a full-fledged teacher, and not teaching through a computer screen.”
Teacher Lucy Keeney gave a thumbs up as she walked out after receiving her shot.
Mike Hart, who teaches civics at UP Academy in South Boston, told reporters that it was “super important” that school workers have the opportunity to receive the vaccine.
“I miss my students a lot. It’s hard to look at black squares on a Zoom, so I’m excited we’re one step closer to actually seeing them in person,” Hart said.
Jessica Rinaldi of the Globe staff contributed to this report.