Baker rips teachers’ unions over vaccine stance

THE BAKER ADMINISTRATION and the state’s teachers unions are engaging in an increasingly bitter fight over plans for vaccinating educators, with Gov. Charlie Baker accusing the unions of wanting to strip vaccines from the state’s most vulnerable residents in order to get their members inoculated.  

Teachers’ unions have been pushing to have more doses set aside just for them. But Baker has resisted, reiterating that with the state getting just 150,000 first doses of COVID vaccine per week from the federal government, vaccinations are a zero-sum game. 

I’m not going to be in a position where I take vaccine away from people who are extremely vulnerable, who have multiple medical conditions and are over age 65 to give it to a targeted population,” Baker said at a press conference on Thursday, after touring a mass vaccination site at the Reggie Lewis Center in Boston. “We’re just not going to play that game.”   

Teachers, school staff, and early educators became eligible for shots at state-run sites in Massachusetts on Thursday. (Some teachers got appointments several days earlier at pharmacies that got supplies directly from the federal government.) The state made available 40,000 appointments at mass vaccination sites for first doses of a vaccine Thursday morning, and all were taken within hours. Teachers were competing for those appointments with other eligible residents – those age 65 and older, health care workers, and those with certain medical conditions. 

The Massachusetts Teachers Association and American Federation of Teachers – Massachusetts have asked Baker to set aside doses for a pilot plan, which could be scaled up to cover the rest of the state, in which EMTs and firefighters set up vaccination clinics for teachers at their schools in 10 to 20 hard-hit communities.  

“Local programs such as the ones now being implemented in several communities, and the union coalition-developed Last Mile Vaccine Delivery Program, are more efficient and equitable, all while minimizing disruption to student services and the public’s access to mass vaccination sites,” MTA president Merrie Najimy said in a statement Wednesday.  

In a statement issued Thursday prior to Baker’s comments, Tim Buckley, senior advisor to the governor, said the governor is “dismayed” that teachers’ unions “continue to demand the Commonwealth take hundreds of thousands of vaccines away from the sickest, oldest and most vulnerable residents in Massachusetts and divert them to the unions’ members.” 

“Building an entirely new, exclusive, teacher-only, school by school distribution system would make Massachusetts’ vaccination system slower, less equitable and far more complicated,” Buckley said. “Diverting hundreds of thousands of vaccines to an exclusive, teacher-only distribution system would deny the most vulnerable and the most disproportionately impacted residents hundreds of thousands of vaccines.” 

A group of nearly 50 legislators, led by Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, wrote a letter to Baker Thursday urging him to develop a plan to vaccinate all educators before fully reopening schools. (State officials are requiring elementary schools to open in person by April 5 and middle schools by April 28, unless a community is granted a waiver.) The lawmakers urge Baker to adopt the unions’ proposal for vaccinating teachers while allowing a more flexible timeline for school reopening.  

Baker has announced that the state will set aside four weekend days at mass vaccination sites reserved for educators. But he strongly rejected proposals to set aside more doses for teachers. 

Baker has also emphasized for months that some schools have been operating safely without teachers yet vaccinated. Administration officials point out that a new pooled testing program, being used in 177 school districts, has had a positive test rate of 0.7 percent – indicating that there is little transmission of COVID-19 in schools. 

While many other states started vaccinating teachers before Massachusetts, Baker defended Massachusetts’ priorities at Thursday’s press conference. He said the state focused on “preservation of life and the preservation of the health care system that preserves life,” as well as ensuring equity in vaccine distribution.  

With limited vaccine supply, Baker said Massachusetts prioritized groups other states did not: people living and working in congregate care settings like homeless shelters, group homes for people with developmental disabilities, and prisons; personal care attendants; and home health aides. Massachusetts also dedicated many doses to residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Those priorities pushed younger essential workers, including teachers, further down the line.  

Baker said he does not think teachers should have their own vaccination system outside of the process used by everyone else, which relies on mass vaccination sites, health care providers, and pharmacies. That distribution approach, he said, is “effective, efficient, and gets lots of shots in arms in a short period of time.” 

Three teachers unions – AFT-Massachusetts, MTA and Boston Teachers’ Union – and the AFL-CIO put out a statement saying Baker mischaracterized their request. What the unions are actually asking for, they said, was to divert some doses already set aside for teachers from the mass vaccination sites and into local community clinics. They accused Baker of “pitting one vulnerable group against another.”

This story was updated with the response from the teachers’ unions.

Baker rips teachers’ unions over vaccine stance