The escalating feud between Gov. Charlie Baker and teachers' unions over bringing students back to classrooms is spilling into the state budget process.

The Legislature's Joint Ways and Means Committee heard testimony March 16 from education leaders about their plans for the fiscal year that begins in July.

But segments of the live-streamed hearing swerved from details about next fiscal year's spending plan to the Baker administration's push to get students back into classrooms by next month.

Education Secretary Jim Peyser devoted much of his initial presentation before the panel to making the case that schools are safe for a return of students if precautions are followed. He said studies show many students are "suffering" in remote and hybrid learning models.

"This is an issue that is not just about COVID. It's about educational progress, mental health, social and emotional development and equity," he told the panel.

Jeff Riley, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, followed up with a PowerPoint presentation outlining the Baker's administration's plans to fully reopen schools. He said COVID-19 infections are dropping, the number of vaccinated people is rising, and the science supports bringing back students for in-person learning.

"The guidance from the medical community is clear -- the kids need to be back in school," Riley said.

Under the plan, districts are required to resume full-time, in-person classes for kindergarten through fifth grade by April 5. Middle schools will reopen for sixth to eighth graders on April 28, and high schoolers will follow after that.

Teachers unions argue that schools are not ready for a full return of students. They are calling on lawmakers to support a delay.

"We need you to advocate that this reentry, which we fully support, goes smoothly and on a better timeline," said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told lawmakers during Tuesday's hearing. "We need you to push the governor to make a better and different decision."

Najimy pointed out that it's unlikely teachers and school staff will be fully vaccinated before they return for in-person classes five days per week.

A group of Democratic lawmakers have filed a new proposal, backed by the unions, to put the brakes on the state's plans to reopen schools next month.

The bill has about 10 co-signers including state Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover.

Gov. Charlie Baker has plowed hundreds of millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief to expand COVID-19 testing in schools and to implement safety measures allowing for in-person learning. But he has clashed repeatedly with teachers unions over the push to get more kids back into school.

Last week, Baker blasted teachers unions for pushing a plan to set up mobile vaccination units for educators and school workers, accusing union leaders of trying to take shots "away from the sickest, oldest and most vulnerable."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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