BOSTON — President Joe Biden is pushing to get more kids back into school, but teachers unions say parents shouldn't expect classrooms to fully reopen anytime soon.
School reopening has been a top priority for Biden, who has touted a plan for kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms to fully reopen in his first 100 days in office.
But Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said if that's going to happen the Biden administration and Congress need to step up federal funding for state and local schools, and more importantly, get teachers vaccinated.
"Biden's plan is very ambitious," she said. "But if he wants schools to be more in person in his first 100 days he needs to back that up with significant resources."
Besides vaccinations, teachers' unions want funding to help schools upgrade ventilation systems and to buy masks. They also advocate continued social distancing requirements.
"There needs to be a combination of mediation strategies in place," Najimy said. "When we get to that point is when our schools will be safe to fully reopen."
Beth Kontos, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, agrees that there need to be a number of safeguards in place and that vaccinating teachers would speed up the return to a normal school routine.
"We're not going to see 30 kids in a classroom again, but we might be able to finish the school year in a little more normal way," Kontos said.
Under the state's COVID-19 vaccine plan, teachers are in the third priority group of Phase 2, along with other frontline workers. It's not clear when they will be eligible to get their shots.
Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines recommending that students return to in-person learning in communities with low COVID-19 transmission rates. Earlier this month, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said teachers don't need to be vaccinated for schools to reopen safely.
Gov. Charlie Baker has pushed to get more kids back into classrooms since schools reopened in the fall. He has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief to school districts for expanding COVID-19 testing and to implement safety precautions allowing schools to shift to in-person learning.
State education officials point to low transmission rates in schools and say the science shows schools can operate without increasing the spread of the virus.
Many of the state's 400 school districts have operating for months under a hybrid approach, with a mix of in-person and remote learning varying by grade level.
Communities that are considered "high-risk" for COVID-19 by the state, such as Lawrence and Lynn, are required to shift to fully remote learning.
On Cape Ann and the North Shore, superintendents in several communities are discussing plans with school committees and local health boards to expand in-class instruction this spring.
In some cities and towns, growing coalitions of school officials, parents and others are urging a return to the classroom on something resembling a full-time schedule.
This Tuesday, the question of whether to move teachers higher up the vaccination priority list in order to speed school reopening will be among a host of issues discussed by lawmakers in the first of several COVID-19 legislative oversight hearings.
House Speaker Ronald Mariano, D-Quincy, said earlier this week that he supports moving teachers to the "head of the line" for vaccinations. He said the inability of schools to fully reopen is depriving the state's children of a quality education.
"You can't send kids to school for one day a week, two days a week," Mariano told WBZ-TV. "We’re deluding ourselves if we don't make this a priority."
Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, is among a growing chorus of elected officials who are demanding that educators and school staff be vaccinated.
"We need to get kids back into the classroom, and part of that is to show the teachers we respect the work they're doing by prioritizing them," he said.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org