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Mass. residents divided over school reopenings, teacher vaccinations, poll shows

Schools have been an issue throughout the pandemic. Above, a protest in Lexington last July.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

Massachusetts residents are divided over whether educators should be fully vaccinated before schools resume full-time in-person learning this month, a highly charged issue that has pitted the state’s teachers unions against Governor Charlie Baker, according to a poll by Suffolk University and The Boston Globe.

The survey, of 500 residents across Massachusetts conducted March 25- 28, found that 51 percent of respondents favored reopening classrooms full time this month, regardless of whether all educators and staffers are fully vaccinated, while 45 percent said reopening should be delayed until all employees get their shots. About 5 percent of respondents were undecided.

The findings come as the state’s effort to vaccinate roughly 400,000 school employees and day-care workers is in its early stages. Under state guidelines, most of those workers became eligible for inoculation three weeks ago, while elementary schools are under state orders to return to full-time classroom instruction on Monday.

It is not known how many school employees have been fully vaccinated or have at least one shot of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which are given three and four weeks apart, respectively. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is not tracking that data, and educators are jostling with hundreds of thousands of other eligible residents for a limited number of vaccines provided by the federal government.


Many poll participants considered the reopening of schools and the inoculation of educators as a single urgent issue. Cecelia Fuller, 34, an office administrator from Leominster, said in an interview that she supports opening schools full time in April, but added school staff should not have to do their jobs in fear.

“They are teaching our kids, and they should be in that line of first responders for vaccination,” said Fuller, whose 4-year-old daughter will be starting kindergarten in the fall.


Many school officials have been scrambling to get their employees vaccinated, making arrangements with retail pharmacies to notify them about leftover doses and working with local health officials to set up clinics. The pressure will intensify as more schools shift to full-time instruction. The state has ordered middle schools to fully reopen by April 28. A date for high schools has not been set.

Baker, who resisted making the vaccination of educators a top priority until President Biden in March ordered states to do so, insists that staff should be safe in fully occupied school buildings, even without a vaccine. He has said that other measures in the state guidelines for reopening schools, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, offer good protection and that virus transmission has been low in school settings.

Teachers unions, however, are worried the risk of transmission will increase as they move from part-time, in-person instruction with small groups of students to nearly full classrooms five days a week. The unions have been pressing the Baker administration to devote more vaccines to educators and allow inoculations in schools.

So far, Baker has only agreed to set aside four days at the state’s mass vaccination sites for school employees, including this Saturday, as well as April 10, and April 11. Earlier last month, state officials projected those days would yield approximately 25,000 appointments.

Despite the concerns about educators’ vaccinations, 56 percent of poll respondents said they believed schools could safely resume full-time, in-person instruction this month, while 36 percent did not.


Billy Meara, 80, of Longmeadow, said he views the teachers unions’ push for full vaccination as merely a delay tactic.

“It’s disgraceful what the unions are doing to these kids,” said Meara, a retired unionized asbestos worker and a Republican. “They are destroying their futures and their well-being. I’m furious.”

Andrew Cavanaugh, 33, of Andover, said he is concerned Baker is pushing to reopen schools to score points with the Republican Party. With so much unknown about the COVID-19 variants, he thinks it is risky to reopen schools full time, especially with most of the school year over, and that a false sense of normalcy could set in.

“My fear is there won’t be a lot of urgency to vaccinate kids” once they become eligible, said Cavanaugh, whose son is 2 years old. “I’m very worried we will have this sub-population of children who will be keeping the virus alive and will produce a variant that could be alarming. You don’t get herd immunity until you get all the sub-populations vaccinated.”

Henry Elliot, a retired boatbuilder and teacher from Swansea, said he doesn’t understand why the Baker administration did not begin vaccinating school staffd earlier this year, alongside first responders, considering them to be critical front-line workers.

“The Baker administration has dropped the ball on the whole vaccination rollout,” said Elliot, whose sister teaches in Western Massachusetts and has underlying health conditions.

He added that vaccination is not a silver bullet. School districts must take every step to provide the best air ventilation possible, and he noted that won’t be easy, given that the districts had historically delayed maintenance and upgrades on their HVAC systems for years and are now paying the price.


Respondents were evenly split when asked whether they thought the ventilation systems in their local schools were adequate to minimize virus transmission, with 40 percent saying no and the same percentage saying yes.

About two-thirds of the state’s approximately 1,600 buildings were constructed more than 50 years ago, including one out of five built before World War II. And even schools with five-year-old HVAC systems required upgrades to safeguard against the coronavirus. Some districts have spent millions this school year to address air-quality issues.

Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, who imposed the school reopening deadlines, has given about three dozen districts, charter schools, and other schools that have been operating remotely or have just begun phasing in a part-time return to classrooms some leeway on resuming full-time, in-person learning — to sort out the logistics.

Asner Saintima, 51, an insurance agent in Lynn, said his kids have not yet returned to their charter school and questions if the conditions are right for a safe return in his community, which has been hard hit by the coronavirus. He said his family is careful to avoid exposure, but he worries that other children’s families may be less so.

“How are my kids going to be protected from those parents who have other beliefs, who believe that it’s nothing, coronavirus is a hoax? That’s my fear,” he said.


Scott Marston, 38, of Framingham, said the April 5 return date is “probably fine,” adding that his nephew has had in-person learning throughout the pandemic, without issue.

“I worry about the toll on kids not being in school for a whole year now,” Marston said, though he said he understands teachers’ concerns about returning to school buildings before they can be vaccinated.

Matt Stout and Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to better reflect the Baker administration’s approach to vaccinating educators.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.