Gov. Charlie Baker has activated up to 450 members of the National Guard to assist with COVID-19 testing in Massachusetts schools and help offset potential staffing shortages within the state prison system.
The Baker Administration said up to 200 National Guard members will assist with testing in K-12 public schools. The extra testing capacity is needed due to staffing shortages that are causing testing delays in many school districts.
Guard members are expected to begin training this week and will start helping to administer tests in school on Monday.
The state developed its own COVID-19 testing program to help K-12 students remain in school safely. Over 2,200 schools have signed up to participate in at least one of three types of testing: test and stay, symptomatic testing, and pooled testing.
Baker's office said the pooled testing positivity rate since the start of the school year has been under 1% and that the test-and-stay program has "saved approximately 25,000 school days for students who would have otherwise had to quarantine."
State Rep. Mindy Domb, an Amherst Democrat, had called on Baker last month to activate the National Guard to assist with testing in K-12 schools.
"I'm really excited and relieved that the governor has decided to do this," Domb said Tuesday.
Another 250 guard members are being activated to offset potential staffing shortages at the Department of Correction.
"We're living in unusual times, right? So we know after last year that in-person learning for students is a priority, and so we have to make sure that happens and that it happens safely," said Domb.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has not said what communities are first in line to get help from the National Guard, but this means additional staffing in places that need it the most.
"I know many districts in western Massachusetts have been struggling with trying to get this off the ground, and I believe many of them are on the first list," said Domb.
This week, guard members will begin training to assist the DOC, if necessary, with transportation and exterior security functions. The additional staffing may be needed as the Oct. 17 deadline for all executive department employees to demonstrate proof of vaccination draws near.
The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union is seeking an injunction in a lawsuit arguing that Baker's mandate, which does not include a testing alternative, violates the contract clause of the Constitution and unlawfully infringes on union members' right to decline unwanted medical treatment without losing their job.
Under this contingency plan, guard personnel will assume external functions which do not involve direct contact with inmates. When guard members assist with providing transportation to inmates, a correctional officer will accompany them.
“We are grateful that the National Guard has stepped up once again, as they have throughout the COVID-19 response, to serve the Commonwealth where needed,” Baker said in a statement. “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. 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.”
National Guard members have already been deployed to 13 school districts across Massachusetts to help drive students to school due to the national bus driver shortage. The initiative began with four districts but has since expanded to nine others.
Officials have said that members of the National Guard will likely drive the buses until December to give bus companies time to hire and train more drivers.