Mass. Says COVID Tests Will Be Supplied to Schools as Union Calls for Closures

"Using Monday as a day for testing and analyzing data will allow our school districts to make prudent decisions around staffing needs," according to a written statement by the union

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The Massachusetts Teachers Association is calling for schools to close on Monday so teachers and staff can use the day for COVID testing, the union said in a statement Friday.

The MTA urged for a delayed start after the state's plan to send testing kits for schools to distribute to students and staff experienced significant delays.

The vendor the state had been counting on for tests that would be distributed to school districts was not able to provide them by Friday, a spokesperson with the Executive Office of Education said Thursday, citing national supply chain constraints.

The state said Friday evening that after finding an alternate supply of tests, distribution of more than 227,000 kits to schools would begin Saturday and Sunday. Officials did not say how long the process would take.

"The department and the Baker-Polito Administration are extremely appreciative of the testing manufacturer iHealth who stepped in to supply tests after the original order was delayed and FedEx who helped facilitate the shipment, as well as teachers and superintendents for their flexibility and continued collaboration," EOE spokesperson Colleen Quinn said in a statement Friday.

Students in Woburn will have a two-hour delay Monday while as many staff members as possible test, the district announced Friday. Newburyport schools are also implementing a two-hour delay, with Watertown implementing a half day.

Classes are canceled Monday in Lexington and Burlington.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association is calling for schools to close on Monday so teachers and staff can use the day for COVID testing.

"DESE quickly developed an alternative plan, and will make testing kits available for distribution this weekend," spokesperson Colleen Quinn said in a statement. "Superintendents have been informed, and told not to send staff to pick up supplies at the distribution centers Friday."

Quinn went on to say districts would be informed of more details Friday, and that districts "will reopen next week as scheduled."

The state began sending out the rapid, at-home tests Thursday. The school employees were encouraged to take one of the tests within 24 hours of returning to work.

The tests are meant to keep staff and students as safe as possible from the pandemic, which is gaining steam locally -- a record number of cases was recorded in the Bay State Thursday -- and nationally.

Massachusetts is handing out 200,000 rapid at-home COVID tests to teachers and staff, in a bid to keep students safe after winter break. But one teachers union is criticizing the plans.

But the MTA ripped the Baker administration's plans as a last-minute scramble that's anything but the comprehensive testing program it had been calling for.

"Using Monday as a day for testing and analyzing data will allow our school districts to make prudent decisions around staffing needs so they can continue in-person learning for students if it is safe or develop contingency plans if a district deems in to be necessary," according to a written statement by the union.

The union is also calling on the state to be more flexible with a return to remote learning in the coming weeks -- something that school officials and Gov. Charlie Baker have been adamantly against.

"Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states supplying rapid tests to its teachers," Quinn said in a response to the MTA's request. "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."

Baker reiterated that position Thursday when asked about the union's criticism.

"Kids need to be in school," he said, adding, "The damage that was done to kids should never be repeated, and we have the tools and capabilities to keep people safe."

"I definitely think it's going to be a challenge for schools starting up this next part of the school year," said Foxboro mom Chantel Maguire. "Obviously, we don't want our schools to close, but we want our teachers to be healthy and safe. They need to feel safe in order to take care of our kids, so I think that it's important for them to get what they need from the state and to feel like they're protected."

"We agree everyone should be tested, but the kids really need to be in school," said Milton mom Regina Murphy. "It's where their needs are best met, and we're just concerned about going remote again."

"Families cannot operate in chaos, we need to plan, we need to have child care set up," said Somerville mom Keri Rodrigues and the founder of Massachusetts Parents United.

Rodrigues argued that for every day that schools may close because of the teacher testing issue, it should be made up at the end of the year so that kids get the in-person education they need.

"We're in another situation where unforced errors by adults running the system are continuing to have pretty devastating effects for children and families across the commonwealth," said Rodrigues.

Of the 200,000 tests being distributed statewide, Baker said his administration thought it "was the right thing to do and we've talked to many communities, many superintendents, who said they appreciate it."

Tests will be available in Boston schools by the end of the day on Monday, according to the Boston Teachers Union, and Erik Berg, its executive vice president, called it "a step in the right direction."

"We believe widespread, on-demand rapid testing in the community and in schools is a critical measure to ensuring our schools are safe as possible, especially with the highly transmissible omicron variant," he added in a statement.

Just as the state is seeing an increase in the number of COVID cases, so have the state's schools -- more than 10,000 in one week in the most recent report.

While state data shows that children -- who were more recently approved for the vaccines than adults -- are getting COVID more than other age groups, Massachusetts isn't seeing the spike in pediatric hospitalizations that other states are.

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