COVID-19 surge makes for uncertain start to the school week in Boston

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A bus idles outside a Boston school. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A bus idles outside a Boston school. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

More than 10,000 COVID-19 testing kits were delivered to Boston public schools Monday morning just as teachers arrived to begin a pre-scheduled planning day before students return on Tuesday. In addition to the tests, BPS teachers will be given 30 KN95 masks each.

The current plan is for all BPS schools to resume in-person learning this week, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said Monday.

That's also the plan across most of the state as COVID cases surge.

In a press conference Monday morning, Gov. Charlie Baker forecast "a challenging period of time" but called the reopening of schools a "terrifically positive sign about the hard work that so many people around the commonwealth are doing every single day to make sure kids get the education they're entitled to."

The approach to testing and the return from the winter break has varied across Massachusetts. Brockton's high school was closed Monday but other schools opened on a two-hour delay for officials to assess staff absences. Woburn also delayed the start of its school day by two hours, to allow time for testing and ensure appropriate staffing. Cambridge is keeping school closed both Monday and Tuesday in order to administer PCR tests Monday and get results back Tuesday. Ipswich officials said their schools were closed Monday "for a 'snow day,'" and that they would use the time to distribute test kits and masks provided by the state.

The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts had called for the new year to start with a period of remote learning "until the current wave of infections abates," and the Massachusetts Teachers Association had said that schools should stay closed Monday except for staff COVID testing.

"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," MTA President Merrie Najimy said in a Friday statement. "With the omicron variant spreading and COVID-19 positivity rates in the state surpassing 16% in the most recent seven-day average ... it is fair to say that the health and safety risks we face from COVID-19 far surpass those presented by a nor'easter."

Baker has stressed the importance of in-person instruction and said Monday that districts "do need to provide their kids with 180 days of in person education this year" and that districts can use snow days if they are not open at some point during the year. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education no longer counts remote instruction toward the amount of student learning time it requires annually.

Back in Boston, the current COVID-19 surge has led to an increase in school staff calling in sick, but district leaders say they'll be doing everything they can to find substitutes.

"We have our central office teams, many of us are licensed teachers, myself included," said Cassellius. "If I have to go out and teach in a classroom, I'm going to do that. But our goal is to keep classes going and keeps students in-person."

More than 150 teachers and administration staff called in sick over the weekend, according to BPS. The district is also expecting more bus drivers to be out this week than usual. BPS has a pool of 105 stand-by replacement drivers. The superintendent is encouraging parents to check their "Where's My School Bus" transportation app this week for the latest updates about whether or not a route will have bus coverage each day.

"I do anticipate that we will see transportation delays and shortages this week," said Cassellius.

Mayor Wu says coordinating the delivery of this equipment in time for school to start this week, especially the testing kits, has been logistically challenging.

"This has been a moving target over the last two weeks," said Wu. "The anticipated date that we were supposed to receive these 10,000-plus tests has shifted day by day by day by day and we were finally able to get the tests [Sunday]."

It's unclear how many BPS students will be out sick with a COVID-19 infection after the holidays. In the fall, the district was averaging about 12 a day. BPS leaders expect that number to be higher now.

BPS had already provided students with masks. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gave the district 700,000 child sized masks for kindergarten through third grade students, as well as 700,000 adult sized masks for older students at the beginning of the school year.

With additional reporting by State House News Service's Katie Lannan.

The audio atop this post features reporting from WBUR's Max Larkin.

This article was originally published on January 03, 2022.

This segment aired on January 4, 2022.



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