School administrators and teachers’ unions are often at odds with each other, but on Cape Cod, both sides agree on the need for educators to get vaccinated against Covid-19 as soon as possible for their own protection and for the safe return of all their students to in-school learning.
The unions and school superintendents in the region have sent a joint letter to Gov. Charlie Baker, asking for the immediate release of vaccine for educators.
“Vaccinating our early childhood and K-12 teachers and support personnel would be a major step toward getting our kids back to school full-time safely,” the letter said.
Ten percent of the students in Truro are fully remote, along with 12 percent in Wellfleet, 23 percent in Provincetown, 20 percent at Eastham Elementary, 18 percent at Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans, and 30 percent at Nauset Regional High School in Eastham.
The letter to the governor includes a strategy for on-site staff vaccinations. “We have freezers and nurses in most, if not all, of our schools,” it said. “Additionally, we have relationships with local fire departments and EMTs, should we need additional assistance.”
Massachusetts educators had initially been scheduled for vaccinations right after those age 75 and older, but Baker abruptly changed the order on Jan. 25, placing those age 65 to 75 ahead of educators and other essential workers. The outcry was immediate.
Mass. Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy called it “an outrage” that there was no advance notice.
“Our members, our students, and their families feel like pawns in a chess game, a game whose rules keep changing,” Najimy said, adding that the change would delay vaccinating educators by several weeks.
“The governor keeps pushing schools to reopen for in-person learning more quickly,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. “Yet he has just made it much harder to do that safely.”
“Schools themselves are not super spreaders, but students come to school having been exposed, been infected, or possibly asymptomatic,” said Cheri Armstrong, a Monomoy Regional Middle School teacher and chair of the Cape and Islands Area Mass. Educator Action Network. “This puts everyone at risk.”
Gov. Baker has stressed that the first two groups in Phase Two, those 75 and older and those 65 to 75, are at the highest risk from the virus. “It’s hard for me to understand, when we look at the data and talk to the experts, that we should be organizing in a way any different than the way we set up,” the governor said on Feb. 4.
Katelyn Reilly, communications director for the Covid-19 Response Command Center, wrote in an email that early education and K-12 educators “are the first group of prioritized workers after healthcare workers and first responders.”
Schools have several other layers of protection in place, Reilly said, “such as nearly $1 billion in funding, a first-in-the-nation pooled testing initiative and access to air purifiers.”
Is Vaccination Necessary?
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a White House briefing last week that data do not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated for schools to reopen safely.
CDC spokesperson Jasmine Reed wrote in an email that “Dr. Walensky’s comments are based on her review of the science.” Accumulating data suggest that if mask wearing, distancing, proper cleaning and ventilation, and hand washing are followed, Covid-19 does not spread rapidly in schools, said Reed.
While teachers on the Outer Cape would like to be vaccinated as soon as possible, those willing to speak to the Independent praised current safety measures.
“I’m very proud of how the kids are managing and proud of our colleagues who come in every day,” said Nauset Regional Middle School teacher Anne Needel. Each school has a safety committee with union representatives, school nurses, education assistants, and principals who meet regularly with custodial staff to discuss problem areas and solutions, she said.
David McGlothlin, co-president of the Provincetown Association of Educators, said union members are satisfied with measures implemented over the last 11 months by the school committee and superintendent. He said in an email that they support any means of vaccinating teachers and support staff as soon as possible.
State Sen. Julian Cyr expressed his frustration at the “halting pace and disjointed communication” of the state’s vaccine program.
“Choosing between vulnerable populations like teachers, essential workers, those over 65, and those with multiple comorbidities, who all deserve vaccine, will leave some at risk for transmission no matter which way the decision is handed down,” Cyr said in an email. “I supported the initial vaccination plan, which placed essential workers like teachers earlier in the sequence of vaccination. However, the best and only solution is more vaccine on Cape Cod, and I will continue to use every lever available to ensure its timely arrival and disbursement.”