Boston Public Schools, already struggling to build a workforce that reflects the diversity of its students, could lose dozens of educators of color when the city’s new employee vaccine mandate takes effect Monday, according to the Boston Teachers Union.
The district’s potential loss of Black and Latino educators in the middle of the school year represents a significant potential unintended consequence of Mayor Michelle Wu’s policy aimed at achieving a fully vaccinated workforce and has raised questions about whether the district should have done more to coax hesitant educators toward vaccination. The loss could disrupt learning for many students and carry long-term implications in the district, where three-quarters of students are Black or Latino but only 42 percent of educators are. Studies show long-term academic benefits for students of color taught by people of their race.
“When I saw our numbers, I was very alarmed and started immediately raising the red flags,” said union president Jessica Tang. “We’ve worked so hard to increase teacher diversity in the first place.”
It’s unclear how many educators could face termination: A BPS spokeswoman said the district received 266 requests for exemptions from the vaccine mandate from Boston Teachers Union members, which includes 7,637 teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, and social workers. The district said it received another 60 requests for exemptions or extensions from other types of employees such as meal service workers and bus drivers. According to the union, 378 of its members remain unvaccinated. Of those educators, 197 are Black, 41 are Latino, 10 are Asian, 122 are white and the ethnicity of eight wasn’t specified.
“I’m sick to my stomach about this — I haven’t been able to sleep or eat,” an unvaccinated Black female BPS second-grade teacher in Roslindale said, through tears, speaking anonymously to avoid professional blowback. “I love working with my students. I don’t want to leave, but the only other option is to succumb because they’re telling me to do this, when every part of my being is saying ‘no.’”
About 94 percent of BPS staff were vaccinated as of Monday, Wu said. Officials hope the number will rise this week, before noncompliant staff are placed on unpaid leave and eventually terminated.
But Tang said the overall compliance masks the urgency needed to retain the mostly Black and Latino educators who face being fired. The union has been fighting to persuade the city to allow unvaccinated educators to stay in their jobs through the end of the school year if they continue being tested weekly or twice a week.
The city’s other unions, including those representing police and firefighters, also have been fighting the mandate but have not publicly said they’re seeing racially disparate impacts.
On Tuesday, Wu stood by the policy, saying the city is trying to close racial vaccination gaps everywhere.
“Equity is always a driving lens as we’re looking at our policies,” Wu said. “We know that vaccination is the best way to ensure safety of our school communities.”
Critics say BPS should have done more to persuade educators of color to take the vaccine, including holding information sessions with Black and Latino medical experts who could address their concerns.
Communities of color have seen lower rates of vaccinations across the country, partly due to hesitancy stemming from historic systemic discrimination in health care and partly due to barriers accessing the vaccine. As of earlier this month, 54 percent of Black people across most US states had received at least one vaccine dose — a lower rate than among white, Latino, and Asian populations, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
BPS educators of color who remain unvaccinated cited general mistrust of the medical system, the belief they don’t need the vaccine, and fears it could be harmful.
The Roslindale teacher said she fears the vaccine could damage her fertility and it hasn’t been studied long enough to be proven safe long term. She doesn’t trust Big Pharma. And she doesn’t feel that she needs it, as she contracted a mild case of COVID in December and has antibodies. (Studies have shown no links between the vaccine and infertility.)
“I am very worried that it could be harmful to me,” she said.
She also finds it unethical that the vaccine’s efficacy, like that of many commonly used drugs and vaccines like ibuprofen and aspirin, was tested using lab-grown cells derived from a few decades-old aborted fetuses — despite many prominent organizations that oppose abortion finding the vaccines to be ethically uncontroversial. That was the reasoning she used in requesting a religious exemption from the mandate.
The city denied her request, stating that being unvaccinated could place students at risk. But she doesn’t see how her becoming vaccinated keeps her students any safer, as vaccinated people can still spread COVID.
Another unvaccinated Black female educator, who works in special education at a Roslindale BPS school, said she has requested an exemption, and likely will receive one, because she has a medical condition her doctor said made the vaccine dangerous to her. But she is disgusted by the way the city has treated her colleagues and is unsure whether she’ll stay even if she can.
“The fact they’re forcing it on us makes me want to leave BPS,” said the woman, who has worked at BPS for seven years. “These people have literally given their lives to this job and this job is just turning around and saying, ‘We don’t care, we don’t appreciate you, do this or get out.’”
While vaccine mandates can work to boost life-saving vaccinations, they need to be handled sensitively to avoid disparate racial impacts, said Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, associate professor of epidemiology at Ohio State University. She said communities of color, particularly Black communities, know their people’s history of medical mistreatment by the government — including the US government’s infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment on Black men without their consent — that have continued today, with disparities in treatment and outcomes.
”The hesitancy that people have is rooted in a logical response to what Black and brown people have experienced in this country,” she said. “We can’t force people to get a vaccine without acknowledging the reasons that they don’t trust the motives of the people who are pushing the vaccine.”
The district should have been holding nonthreatening conversations with Black educators and Black doctors for months, said Edith Bazile, a past president of Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts. But at BPS, she said, “the culture is punitive and consequence-driven, as opposed to engaging and communicative and empowering.”
A BPS spokeswoman said the district has held nearly 80 vaccination clinics, sent messages to unvaccinated staff, and hosted two staff forums with public health experts — in addition to a session for educators of color with BPS leaders of color.
”The district should reach out to those educators and make their best efforts to do what they can to encourage and inform before letting them go,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor at Twelfth Baptist Church and a member of the BPS opportunity and achievement gaps task force. Many of his church members were scared but decided to become vaccinated after he held a forum with a Black doctor who could answer their questions. “This would take us further steps back in the efforts to diversify our classroom teachers.”
Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to the report.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.