Mayor Michelle Wu announced an agreement with Boston teachers Thursday that will ease the vaccine mandate on educators, but said masks will still be required in school after Feb. 28, as the uncertain course of the pandemic continues to dominate her early tenure.
Wu said Boston’s school mask mandate will remain in place past the expiration of the statewide requirement at month’s end, announced by Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday. She urged caution, given that many children remain unvaccinated, even as the region begins to emerge from the Omicron surge.
“I won’t presume to know what should or could have gone into the governor’s calculation,” Wu said during a news conference Thursday. “What I know is that the City of Boston is not ready to lift our mask mandate, and so ours will stay in place for the time being.”
The city also announced Thursday that it had reached an agreement with the Boston Teachers Union allowing educators to be tested regularly for COVID-19 in lieu of vaccination, but only during periods of lower virus transmission. At other times, unvaccinated teachers would either have to use accrued time or take unpaid leave. The negotiation represented progress for Wu in an ongoing and increasingly acrimonious labor dispute — but it also marked a significant, if metrics-driven, retreat from her original vaccine mandate, which lacked a testing opt-out.
Taken together, the decisions — to maintain one contentious restriction while relaxing another — highlighted the challenges of governing through a pandemic, which for two years has demanded that leaders adapt constantly. Wu’s moves also shed light on the countless pressures — public health and politics among them — that face leaders at City Hall and beyond as the virus continues to chart its uncertain course.
In the case of the school mask mandate, Baker loosened state restrictions before some municipal leaders — and doctors and parents — would have. On the vaccine mandates, it is Wu who has become less strict; Baker’s vaccine mandate for state executive department employees does not allow testing instead of inoculation.
The decision on masks in schools relies on familiar metrics, Wu said: the share of tests coming back positive, how many people are being hospitalized, and how close ICUs are to their capacity.
“Our Boston Public Health Commission has determined that we need to see consistent downward trend of these numbers, so that we are not just dipping above and below and above and below,” Wu said. “At the same time, I have two kids in our schools, I know it’s been such a challenging set of years for our entire school communities.”
On Wednesday night, Wu asked a room of high school students, members of the Mayor’s Youth Council, to raise their hands if they believed the city should keep its mask requirement in place beyond Feb. 28.
Almost all of them did, Wu showed in a tweet, sharing a photo of students with their hands raised.
Tiffany Luo, a senior at Boston Latin School, said she was glad the mask mandate would stay in place, especially after watching as friends and classmates caught the Omicron variant despite being vaccinated and wearing masks.
”If I didn’t have my mask, I would feel so much more unsafe,” said Luo, who lives with people who are at high risk for serious cases of the virus. “I would be so much more anxious.”
As Boston maintains its mask mandate, some suburban districts have gone the other way, asking the state for permission to lift the requirement sooner. High schools in Hopkinton, Westborough, Norwell, and King Philip Regional High School in Wrentham already do not require students to wear masks, after applying for a waiver. And the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston said Wednesday that it was dropping all school mask mandates at its parochial schools effective Feb. 28.
Meanwhile, the Boston Teachers Union agreement came as Wu continues to negotiate the city’s vaccine requirement with other municipal unions, bargaining disputes that have grown particularly contentious with public safety workers even as the city signaled its willingness to adopt a softer stance.
Currently, Boston is barred from enforcing the mandate amid a legal challenge from several first responder unions. But the city intends to enforce it if and when the stay is lifted, a process that would begin with placing unvaccinated workers on unpaid leave.
The teachers union’s deal protects its unvaccinated members from being fired, as long as they abide by the twice-a-week testing requirements. But other unvaccinated city workers could risk termination if their unions do not come to similar understandings with the Wu administration. Wu said in December that the vaccine requirement would be a condition of employment for city workers, meaning they could be fired if they did not comply.
The vast majority of the city’s roughly 19,000 employees have been inoculated, a number that has grown since Wu announced her mandate in December. Just 367 educators remain unvaccinated, a tiny fraction of the union’s 8,403 members, the Boston Teachers Union said this week.
According to the teachers union agreement, during periods of higher virus transmission — what the agreement calls the “red zone” — unvaccinated union members would not be allowed in school buildings, and could use accrued paid time off. Otherwise, unvaccinated teachers would need to take unpaid leave during high-transmission periods.
The agreement, which won 84 percent approval in a Wednesday night vote, requires all new hires to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Under the public health benchmarks in the teachers union agreement, the city remains in the “red zone,” as determined by three metrics: ICU occupancy, hospitalizations per day, and community positivity rate.
Wu said Thursday that she was “very grateful” that the teachers union had ratified the agreement, which she said would ensure “that we are still keeping our classrooms fully safe.” Earlier in the day, she called it “deeply disappointing” that public safety unions had not reached a similar deal.
“What we see here is a small group of unions deferring to, enabling, and empowering a fringe group that is seeking to have an absolute right to remain unvaccinated in the middle of the pandemic,” Wu said outside her home.
First responders have also been offered a testing option during times of lower transmission, but the unions have not reached an agreement with the city. John Soares, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718, said the sticking point was the COVID-19 benchmarks used to define the “yellow zone” when testing would be allowed in lieu of vaccination.
Leaders of four public safety unions — Boston Firefighters Local 718, Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, and the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association — wrote in a public letter to Wu Wednesday that they were “extremely disappointed” with how the administration had handled the negotiations, citing delays and cancellations.
Union battles over the vaccine mandate have become the dominant political dispute of Wu’s early tenure, a first brawl in a power struggle that shows no signs of easing. Protesters dog her at events across the city and, for the past month, have been showing up most mornings outside her Roslindale home to bang drums and shout their opposition.
But as the sun rose Thursday morning, it was only quiet supporters, most of them retirees, who had gathered on the street in front of her green duplex. They had come to counter the protesters, but the anti-mandate crowd never arrived.
“Thank you Mayor Wu,” one supportive banner said, “for supporting worker health and safety!”
Danny McDonald and Naomi Martin of the Globe staff contributed reporting.