In his new book, Governor Charlie Baker calls out union leaders for what he characterizes as their “troubling” effort to block the return of in-person learning. “For the fall of 2020, most of the teachers’ union leaders seemed opposed to many reasonable attempts to open our schools for in-person learning, despite the assurances and the appeals of the medical community,” he writes in “Results: Getting Beyond Politics to Get Important Work Done.”
Yet, based on the state’s official tally of student and staff COVID-19 cases for the 2021-22 school year, there was cause for concern. According to data collected by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the year-to-date statewide total for staff COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts is 55,421 out of an estimated 140,000 — which represents about 40 percent. The year-to-date statewide total for students is 254,042, or 26.76 percent.
Alan Geller, a senior lecturer at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who has been tracking the COVID-19 school data, calls those numbers “extraordinarily high.” Although there’s no way of knowing the exact point of exposure for teachers and school staff, “that’s still a pretty tough occupational lot for educators,” said Geller, who added, “It makes me frustrated because I think we could still be and should have been doing a lot better for our kids and teachers.”
Of course, schools had to reopen. Their pandemic-imposed shutdown led to serious learning setbacks and mental health issues. Getting back to some semblance of normal is important in every aspect of life and work — although I write this with the privilege of still working remotely from home. What’s striking is the Baker administration’s empathy deficit when it comes to educators and support staff. Massachusetts teachers were not included in the first phase of the state’s vaccine roll-out. Reluctance to return to the classroom was written off as laziness, enabled by strident union leaders. The Baker attitude toward teachers unions during a worldwide health crisis felt like an extension of his attitude toward them in ordinary times. He views them as obstructionists and reform-killers — especially after they organized around and defeated a campaign he supported to allow more charter schools in Massachusetts.
In his book, Baker writes that union resistance to re-opening schools “bothers me deeply, especially because of its impact on kids.” Yet now that schools are open, it can be argued that state policies regarding COVID-19, or the lack of them, also have a potentially harmful impact on kids. Baker lifted the school mask mandate in February. The vaccination rate for children between ages 5 and 11 “hasn’t hit 50 percent,” said Geller, and there’s no major statewide campaign to change that. Parents had to opt into COVID-19 testing for their school children rather than opt out, which Geller said means testing was not as high as it could be. Meanwhile, as of this fall, testing will be discontinued, the state announced on Friday. Following CDC recommendations, social distancing requirements were lifted when schools reopened last fall.
In a January opinion piece in the Globe, Geller wrote that Baker and Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley “are dismissive of the number of weekly cases, ignore the cumulative numbers, and misleadingly tout the reach of their testing regimen.” Geller (who is also an unofficial member of the Environmental Health and Safety Committee for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, but is not a member of the MTA) sees ongoing warning signs in the most recent data.
There are about two dozen Massachusetts cities and towns with a year-to-date student infection rate of 40 to 50 percent; they cover a wide geographic area and include Wellfleet, Wakefield, Sudbury, Rockport, Sturbridge, Tewksbury, and Nahant. Holyoke, Malden, Worcester, Framingham, Lawrence, Lynn, Boston and Chelsea are showing student infection rates of 30 percent and lower. But Geller said in some communities, that could be due to a low testing rate rather than a truly lower infection rate. Demographically speaking, the more money you have, the greater likelihood you will test. Whether those test results are reported to anyone is an open question, which affects estimates of the true status of COVID-19 in Massachusetts schools.
Pediatric hospitalizations remain low, but kids transmit to parents, grandparents — and to teachers. “I think the teachers have been trying to make decisions that are largely data-driven, and the number of teachers infected bears out their concern,” he said. To Geller, “the teachers and kids have been the under-appreciated heroes” of this pandemic.
It would be nice to have a governor who would write that, too.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.