Coalition led by Holyoke officials press Baker to vaccinate educators earlier

  • Holyoke School Committee member Devin Sheehan is leading a coalition of school committee members statewide to encourage Gov. Charlie Baker to vaccinate teachers and other school personnel earlier. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Holyoke High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Managing Editor
Published: 1/19/2021 6:57:59 PM

HOLYOKE — As students and teachers in Holyoke prepare to soon head back to school under a hybrid learning model, a coalition of school committee members from across the state is calling on Gov. Charlie Baker to prioritize vaccination for educators in urban and low-income school districts, like those in the Paper City and Springfield.

Early education and K-12 educators are included in Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination plans, which has a distribution timeline of February and March. However, the school committee members, including a majority from Holyoke, say it has become clear that students in urban and low-income districts are disproportionately impacted in the current learning environment.

“Holyoke is still in the red as well as many other urban communities that are learning remotely,” said Holyoke School Committee member Devin Sheehan of the city’s COVID-19 caseload status.

“The vaccine can be a tool and at best help in getting educators vaccinated. Teachers and school staff aren’t being prioritized enough to make that happen.”

Sheehan, who organized the communication to Baker, said the governor has been calling on schools to reopen and that prioritizing the distribution of vaccine to educators and school staff “will help expedite a safe return to school.”

The Holyoke School District remains under state receivership. The letter was signed by 69 school officials in 21 cities and towns, including Springfield, Worcester and Cambridge.

Sheehan said urban districts like Holyoke have some of the highest populations of English language learners and special needs students, along with technology challenges,  which makes an extended remote environment even more challenging for many students and families.

“It’s the struggle with poverty as a whole,” he said.

The letter to Baker asks that his administration address what the school committee members described as a “growing inequity” in school districts. It calls for the governor to work with Education Secretary James Peyser and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders.

“We ask that you work with Secretary Peyser and Secretary Sudders to prioritize vaccine distribution that will lead to safer in-person learning for some of our neediest districts,” the letter states.

The letter comes one week after a group of lawmakers wrote to Baker, Peyser and Sudders with concerns about vaccine and pool testing prioritization in public school systems, although they did acknowledge that early education and K-12 workers were placed ahead of vaccine distribution to the general public. The letter was signed by 35 lawmakers including state Reps. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, and Patricia Duffy, D-Holyoke, and state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow.

“We ask that you further prioritize this category by ensuring that low-income school districts receive first priority in order to ensure the most rapid return to in person learning in these districts,” the legislators wrote. “As you know, the challenges of technology, child care, language barriers and more have made remote learning incredibly difficult across these districts. Furthermore, the workforce in low-income school districts have been most exposed to the virus, providing yet another public health driven reason to prioritize these communities.”

The Gazette reached out to Baker’s office for comment but was unsuccessful Tuesday afternoon.

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