Teachers unions across the Merrimack Valley are celebrating access to the coronavirus vaccine after federal and state officials said educators and other school employees can receive their first COVID-19 shot within the month.
Last week after an announcement from President Joe Biden, CVS pharmacies began opening up appointments to educators and other school staff in the Commonwealth. More appointments were made available starting Thursday, when Gov. Charlie Baker announced eligible to get in line at state-run sites starting March 11.
Thus the hunt for appointments began.
Educators started competing for vaccination slots with the nearly one million more residents who just entered the appointment pool two weeks ago when the Baker-Polito Administration opened up slots to residents 65 and older and those with two or more qualifying medical conditions.
Some Andover teachers have found appointments, Superintendent Claudia Bach said Monday. Some are during the day so principals promised teachers to to cover classes when teachers manage to score an appointment, she said.
To avoid shuffling and disruption during the school day to get appointments, officials have called for a more targeted approach for vaccinating teachers to ensure it happens quickly and efficiently.
Without a plan to get teachers vaccinated at an expedited pace “we are not really moving closer to finding a solution that can bring everyone back to an in-person healthy and safe learning environment,” said Matthew Bach, the president of the Andover Education Association.
“It would be an empty gesture to say ‘you can get the vaccine’ and then not be able to get vaccinated,” Bach said.
Officials had previously planned to vaccinate teachers at the Andover Field House when the town's Public Health Department was receiving vaccines. They could have easily vaccinated all 1,200 employees in two days, Health Director Thomas Carbone said. However, the state stopped sending Andover and other municipalities the vaccine earlier this month in order to direct more doses to larger mass vaccination sites.
At a press conference announcing the new March 11 availability for educators, Baker said the state may set aside specific dates for school staff members to be vaccinated at mass vaccination sites across the state. However, Andover officials asked for a more local approach in letters sent to Baker and other officials, asking they send doses to the town Health Department to set aside specific clinics for local teachers.
“Bringing this back locally and doing this at times that work for people will just make sense," said School Committee member Susan McCready.
Since the state has said it wouldn't be allowing local health departments to host clinics, Andover school's Director of Nursing Rita Casper has reached out to local pharmacies and health clinics to attempt to partner up for a local clinic, she said. She added that they offered school nurses to help vaccinate and the Field House as a facility for the clinic.
"Anything we can do to collaborate with them to entice them to help our district we will do," Casper said.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association has proposed a plan they are calling the “Last Mile Vaccine Delivery Plan” that is currently on Baker’s desk. It asks that vaccines be specifically distributed to educators, similar to the way hospitals and residential living facilities were prioritized at the beginning of the roll-out.
The plan proposed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association would start with high-risk communities. Haverhill, Lawrence and Methuen are among the 20 cities and towns designated as equity communities by the state Department of Public Health — those hardest hit by the pandemic.
Bach said he was supportive of that plan to get vaccines distributed more locally. He said he hopes the vaccine can provide reassurance to teachers as more students come into classrooms.
This week as kindergarten and first grade students combined cohorts to return to in-person four days a week, teachers were happy, he said. However, large class sizes do worry teachers, Bach said.
"One kindergarten teacher said they were worried they would have 24 students in their class. That’s too high for non-pandemic years. Andover can afford to do better,” he said.
The teachers' association will continue to push for smaller class sizes even after the pandemic subsides, he said.
Staff writer Allison Corneau contributed to this report.