MASSACHUSETTS — State officials have adopted the full-steam-ahead approach to getting students back in class, plowing through teachers' objections and shrugging at a vaccination timeline that doesn't quite add up.
The back-and-forth with educators hasn't been a subtle one: Teachers unions say they want to be back with their students in school — but only when it's safe. The state says that time is near.
State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley ordered elementary school students back in class five days a week starting April 5. Middle school students have to be back by April 28.
The problem is vaccinations. Teachers in the state only became eligible to book vaccinations Thursday, and since most inoculations require two shots weeks apart, many will not be fully vaccinated by early April. Gov. Charlie Baker fast-tracked the vaccine process for teachers after pressure from the White House and here at home.
"It was pretty clear to everyone in the field that that was being done because his hand had been forced," Worcester School Committee member Tracy O'Connell Novack told Patch last week, hours before the state announced it set aside four days for teachers-only vaccinations at mass vaccination sites.
The first teacher-only day is March 27 — just nine days before elementary teachers are expected to be back in full classrooms. But vaccination timelines mean nearly all elementary teachers who go that day — which won't be more than a fraction of the state's total — wouldn't be fully inoculated until about the middle of May, which means six weeks of in-person teaching before the vaccine takes effect.
The Moderna vaccine requires two doses four weeks apart, while the Pfizer vaccine requires three weeks between doses. In each case, there's about a two-week delay until people are considered fully vaccinated.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine needs just one dose, but the state isn't expecting a significant amount of those vaccines until late March and it's unknown how they will be distributed.
When Patch asked if the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will push for prioritization or fast-tracking for educators to match up with the return-to-school plan, a spokesperson responded with the four teacher-specific vaccination dates announced just a short time before.
The department's memo detailing the return-to-school deadlines notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in-person education is safe with existing mitigation protocols.
"While vaccinations are not a prerequisite for returning to in-person instruction, vaccination for educators and their vulnerable family members will provide additional confidence in returning to the classroom," the memo said.
Teachers have been buoyed by a growing chorus of those saying the state should inoculate them before mandating a return to class.
"I think if we have not vaccinated our very most vulnerable populations at this point, we shouldn't be blaming teachers, we should be looking at our rollout," U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark told WBZ's Jon Keller Sunday. "If we are saying schools have to reopen in April, let's make sure we're protecting our teachers."
It's not just the teachers who won't be vaccinated by early April. It's the bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others who may not be as tech-savvy as educators who have been working online for a year.
And that's before anyone gets to the children.
Novack, who sits on the Massachusetts Association of School Committees but was speaking separate from it, said classrooms won't be safe just because a teacher is vaccinated. While the highly contagious virus has largely spared children, it has targeted many of the people they live with.
Novack worries about medically compromised children as well as their households, which in many cities are made up of multiple generations.
"In terms of what keeps me awake at night in terms of Worcester, that's what keeps me awake at night," she said. "It's my job as a School Committee member to remember kids who don't get remembered."
Another issue is how far children will be from their peers when they do come back.
The state is encouraging 3 feet of physical distance between students, a gap it says is safe when wearing masks and observing other mitigation strategies. But the CDC still encourages 6 feet of distance "when feasible."
An education department spokesperson pointed to a letter signed by 300 physicians that supported the 3 feet guidance, which is also endorsed by the World Health Organization.
"To cite the CDC just on vaccinations and ignore literally everything else they're saying is maddening," Novack said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said on CNN the CDC could shrink its guidelines from 6 feet to 3 feet.
The education department said four of every five districts were already offering in-person or hybrid learning as of mid-February.
School committees who think the state is overstepping say much of that progress came under local collaboration between superintendents, districts and teachers' unions. Some local boards of health have worked to get educators vaccinated. The local push has been slower than some have hoped but has had districts moving toward the classroom.
"We run school systems based on trust ... We've all got to trust that this is working," Novack said. "And it takes a lot of time and effort to build."
Right now, trust is what the state and teachers appear to be lacking.
Original story here.