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Gov. Baker activates the National Guard to help with COVID testing in schools and security for prisons

Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in April 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site in Chelsea, Mass. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in April 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site in Chelsea, Mass. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

In response to staffing issues facing Massachusetts schools and prisons, Gov. Charlie Baker is activating hundreds of National Guard members to assist staffers.

The governor's office said Tuesday that 200 National Guard members will be deployed to help with COVID-19 testing in public schools. The members will begin training this week and start assisting with tests on Monday.

“We are very thankful to the men and women of the National Guard for their assistance to help school districts handle some operational challenges in order to continue to keep students, teachers and staff safe,” said Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.

The state's pooled-testing regime — seen as an economical way to look for new outbreaks in — has been slow to get underway in several districts from Boston to Amherst, due in part to staff shortages.

State officials say CIC Health, the Cambridge-based contractor overseeing the program, has recently retained five additional staffing firms to fill those gaps.

In an open letter published last week, state Rep. Mindy Domb, whose district includes the Amherst-Pelham school district, had urged Baker to draw on the National Guard to bolster the program — and says it's "terrific" that he has made that move.

With case counts high in schools this fall, Domb said pooled testing — or the lack thereof — has been top of mind for many families and educators she represents.

“They were aware that this was being promoted as something that was going to help their kids stay in school and be healthy," she said. "And they were concerned that it wasn't happening."

Schools can participate in one of three state testing programs: one for those who are symptomatic at school; pooled testing of large groups of students and staff; and the so-called "test and stay" program, where close contacts of people who test positive are tested and allowed to remain in school unless they also test positive.

More than 2,200 schools previously signed up to participate in at least one of the three programs. However, only about 1,350 of those schools have reported testing data so far, with many districts citing staffing shortfalls.

Another 250 Guard members this week will begin training to work at state prisons in case of staffing shortages expected over the governor's vaccine mandate for state employees, which goes into effect Sunday. The mandate requires Executive Department workers to be vaccinated by Oct. 17 or formally seek an exemption. Those who do not comply face punishment, including being fired.

The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents 3,300 correction officers, last month filed suit over the governor's mandate. A hearing on the suit is scheduled for later this week.

In a letter to lawmakers last week, the union said 47% of correction officers are vaccinated and mass terminations of correction officers "would result in an unprecedented and epic public safety crisis."

A statement from Baker's office said activating the Guard now gives them time to prepare in case of prison staffing shortages this weekend.

“Today’s activations will ensure that we have additional staffing support for our school testing programs to help kids stay safe and will allow DOC to respond to possible staffing shortages," Baker said in a statement " While we are overall pleased with the progress we are seeing with Commonwealth employees submitting vaccination attestations, we will take whatever steps are necessary to safely run all correctional facilities.”

The governor's office said the 250 Guard members will help with transportation and exterior security functions at state prisons. The Department of Correction is also looking to bring in retired correction officers to help.

Baker previously deployed members of the National Guard to help some districts get students to schools in light of a widespread shortage of bus drivers.

With additional reporting from WBUR's Max Larkin

This article was originally published on October 12, 2021.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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