COVID

Mass. school staffs get 227,000 COVID-19 tests ahead of reopening

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Massachusetts handed out 227,000 COVID-19 tests to public school staffs over the weekend ahead of Monday’s return to school from the holiday break.

The return to school comes as Massachusetts endures an unprecedented COVID-19 surge. The state topped 1 million cases Tuesday and reported 21,397 new cases and 48 new deaths on New Year’s Eve Friday.

The tests, which cost about $5.6 million and were funded by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, were initially held up due to supply chain issues. But the test kits eventually made their way to Massachusetts on New Year’s Eve and were distributed to school staff across the state on Saturday and Sunday. 

Last week, two Massachusetts teachers’ unions called on the state to delay all school openings on Monday for thorough staff testing and data analysis. Regardless, most school districts will reopen on Monday, and Boston Public Schools will open on Tuesday, as originally planned.

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Cambridge Public Schools, however, announced Friday that they will delay the return to school until Wednesday, Jan. 5 so staff can undergo testing and the results can be analyzed.

“The fast-spreading Omicron variant has caused a significant rise in COVID cases, supply chain shortages, challenges for families/staff accessing testing appointments, and information about likely staff shortages next week, therefore, we believe that delaying the return to school is in the best interest of our school community,” Cambridge Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Victoria Greer said in a statement posted on the district’s website.

Substitute teachers will step in to cover for any teachers who test positive, Greer said.

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has said the tests will help ensure the safety of both students and staff returning to schools on Monday. 

But teachers’ unions aren’t convinced that the plan would allow enough time for testing and the analysis of results. 

“We recognize that delaying some students’ return to school poses challenges for families. But if there were a blizzard on Sunday evening, nobody would question the wisdom of declaring Monday a snow day,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said in a press release Friday. 

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She continued, “With the omicron variant spreading and COVID-19 positivity rates in the state surpassing 16 percent in the most recent seven-day average — and with Massachusetts now reporting more than 1 million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic — it is fair to say that the health and safety risks we face from COVID-19 far surpass those presented by a nor’easter.”

The Massachusetts branch of the American Federation of Teachers joined the MTA’s call for school delays, pointing to the unprecedented rise of COVID-19 cases across the state and alarming rates of pediatric positivity rates and hospitalizations.

“Massachusetts public school students and their families have struggled with the uncertainty and anxiety of the COVID pandemic for two years. They have the right to know that after the holiday break they are returning to safe schools. Given the ever-increasing infection rate and the virulent behavior of the current COVID strain, we know they will not,” said AFT Massachusetts President Beth Kontos.

Following the unions’ pleas, Massachusetts Executive Office of Education spokesperson Colleen Quinn told the AP that the department will not close schools on Monday, and asked teachers to be patient as officials worked to get tests to teachers over the weekend.

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“It is disappointing that once again the MTA is trying to find a way to close schools, which we know is to the extreme detriment of our children,” Quinn said. 

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