25 Investigates: MA teacher COVID vaccinations go untracked, even as school reopenings loom

BOSTON — At a recent vaccine clinic in Brockton, the focus was on getting kids 12-and-older vaccinated. After a year of remote learning, parents and students alike said they were doing their part to ensure a successful year of in-person education.

Sahara, a Brockton student, said she was getting vaccinated so she can “be safe and be comfortable in school.”

Dad Darryl Spencer said he was doing it to protect his daughter.

“You just got to protect yourself and your families, and, you know, hope for the best,” he said.

But even as the push is on to vaccinate everyone eligible for the shot before the school year, there are two issues complicating that goal: the vaccine is still not approved for children under the age of 12, and there is no definitive way to find out how many teachers in a school district have actually been vaccinated.

25 Investigates has learned the state isn’t keeping track of teacher and school staff vaccinations. That data is not being collected at the state level nor within dozens of school districts we contacted.

“It’s scary when you walk around people and you don’t know,” said Melinda Elam, a Brockton mother who took her school-aged children to the vaccine clinic at Brockton High School.

She believes that her kids’ teachers will do their part too, but presently there isn’t a source for that information.

There are no vaccine mandates for public school employees in Massachusetts. 25 Investigates reached out more than two dozen school districts across Massachusetts, including Boston, Worcester, Lawrence, Norwood, Newton, Medford, Everett, Waltham, Revere, Melrose, Cambridge, Brockton, Lawrence, Arlington, Quincy and Weymouth. None were tracking employee vaccination status.

Many told us they hosted vaccine clinics that were very well attended by staff.

Framingham, Somerville and Burlington said they weren’t tracking employee vaccination status. However, they are asking employees to voluntarily tell them if they’re vaccinated, so they only have rough estimates. Stoneham, Malden, Lynn, Danvers, Plymouth, Dedham, Chelsea, Webster and Lowell did not respond by our deadline.

We also checked with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). They told us they’re not tracking vaccination status either.

“That’s part of the reason we have supported the mayor’s decision to ask everyone, whether you’re vaccinated or not, to be masked in schools,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teacher’s Union, which represents 7,500 teachers and educators.

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“I think it would be great information to have. In these times of uncertainty, the more information you have, the more data, the more science to follow,” she added.

Tang believes most of her members are vaccinated after fighting hard for access to the shots in the Spring but recognizes that actual numbers are hard to come by or don’t exist.

While no vaccine creates total immunity, CDC data shows the COVID-19 shots are highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death even amid the rising Delta variant.

On Friday, the state released some mask guidance strongly recommending, but not requiring, they be worn in grades K through 6, where no children will be vaccinated by the fall. Both DESE and the Department of Public Health recommend that schools allow vaccinated students to remain unmasked.

In a statement to 25 Investigates, DESE said it believes regular in-school testing is the key safety measure.

“DESE and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services will continue to offer these services at no cost to districts. These no cost services will include optional support for districts who would like additional staff to conduct testing on-site and/or help with testing logistics and communication.”

With conflicting mask guidance from the state and CDC, we asked Dr. Ali Raja, the head of Emergency Medicine at Mass General Hospital, to weigh in. While he’s not sure if teachers and school staff should be required to be vaccinated to return to the classroom, he favors regular COVID testing in schools.

“If we can’t do a vaccine mandate, I would hope we’d at least do regular COVID testing for unvaccinated teachers like they’re going to be doing in New York City,” Dr. Raja said.

But that would require knowing who isn’t vaccinated.

DESE added that districts can soon sign up for a statewide COVID-19 testing program, which will aid in their goal of minimizing the number of students required to quarantine outside of school. The agency said it’ll release more details about the program later this month.

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