From Worcester to Cambridge and throughout Massachusetts this weekend, rapid COVID-19 tests were handed out to every public school district in the state ahead of the return to classrooms Monday from a long holiday break.
But some schools will open late, or later in the week, due to COVID concerns.
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Cambridge is among several cities that have delayed the start of school until Wednesday.
"While we've had to take a pause and delay the start of school for two days, we really believe strongly -- especially my nursing team -- we really believe strongly that it will save time on the end of unnecessary quarantining of anyone who may have been a close contact, because we will have the actual test results from each individual person," said Cambridge Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Victoria Greer.
"I think it's absolutely necessary that we get tested," said Julie Koupke, a Cambridge technology teacher.
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The district has substitute teachers on standby in case there are positive cases among the teaching staff, Greer said.
More than 227,000 at-home rapid COVID-19 tests were handed out this weekend. After a two-day delay -- due to supply chain issues -- the tests arrived in the Bay State on New Year's Eve and were distributed Saturday and Sunday so that teachers could test themselves before returning to the classroom Monday, following the extended holiday break.
Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has said this was a crucial step in getting students back to school safely starting on Monday.
"Just really grateful for the National Guard, MEMA, the governor’s office and of course our school districts for coming out to help get the supplies out to our teachers ahead of time," he said.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education strongly encourages all school staffers to take one at-home COVID test no more than 24 hours before they return to work. They are being given a second test to use at their own discretion.
But the Massachusetts Teachers Association has continued to be critical of the state's plan, calling it disorganized.
"The debacle is just continuing," said Merrie Najimy from the MTA. “Reports back from our locals are there aren’t enough tests, so staff are only getting one test instead of their required two.”
The teachers union wanted public schools shut down statewide Monday to allow staff to test, but the state rejected that. The MTA is also claiming that some of the masks aren’t medical grade.
“Some of the masks appear not to be the right quality and therefore they are not effective," Najimy said.
In a statement Sunday night, the state says these masks were tested by an MIT lab earlier in the pandemic, that they have a filtration efficacy of 87.5% and are considered highly effective by the state's Department of Public Health.
The state education commissioner has said Massachusetts is one of the few states in the country that has supplied both masks and test kids in advance of returning to school.
"So just really appreciate all the hard work that’s been done so that we can have a good result for our kids," Reilly added. "I think at the end of the day, we are trying to use every mitigation strategy we can to have a good outcome in our schools and so this is an important day for us."
But some had been pushing for schools to temporarily close after the initial delivery delay, with the Massachusetts Teachers Association expressing concern that the process is being rushed at the expense of safety.
"The only prudent thing to do is use Monday as a day for testing," said Najimy. "That way districts can analyze the results and then have time to prepare if they’re going to need additional staff or develop a contingency plan if the district teams that it’s necessary."
Somerville and Waltham Public Schools announced Sunday they will have a two-hour delayed start on Monday.
Other school districts that decided to close on Monday -- pushing their start dates back to Tuesday or Wednesday -- because of testing issues, include Burlington and Lexington.
Wareham Public Schools announced they will not return Monday due to staffing issues.
"Due to the number of staff members who are ill, I am canceling our return to school tomorrow, Monday, January 3, 2022," Wareham Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver Hood said on Facebook. "It is my hope we return on Tuesday, January 4th."
In Pembroke, bus routes will be delayed due to a driver shortage.
In Worcester, kids will be back on Monday despite at least 75 staff members already reporting positive tests.
“We’re going to school tomorrow," Worcester Schools Safety Director Rob Pezella said. "Every one of our principals is ready to go. They’re going to deal with what they have to deal with. If there’s staff shortages they’ll do what they have to do to make sure the students are learning.”
Cambridge, however, will start on Wednesday, with Boston going back Tuesday.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu will join Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and the Boston Public Schools operations team on Monday to unpack, sort, and prepare COVID-19 test kits and KN95 masks for teachers and school staff at the Campbell Resource Center for distribution to schools on Monday.
A statement released Sunday night from Wu's office said this is one part of the city’s broader efforts to protect city workers, students, and families, keep schools open and maintain core services while addressing the COVID-19 winter surge.
"I’d love to see that everybody’s been tested first and is back in school and everybody feels safe," said Dan Kelly, whose daughter is a Boston Public Schools teacher. "I understand you know, the pressure it puts on parents to have kids at home and everything else. But safety first. Not just for the teachers, but for the children, as well."
Many districts, including Boston, have said they have their plans in place for substitutes -- if and when -- positive tests come back.
The state has said kids need to be in the classroom, with Gov. Charlie Baker voicing his opinion on the topic last week.
"Kids need to be in school. If we learned anything from this pandemic, it’s the damage that was done to kids should never be repeated," Baker said at the time. "We have the tools and capabilities to keep people safe."
Baker will join Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll on Monday to visit the Saltonstall School in Salem to highlight the school’s return to in-person learning following winter break.