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As COVID rates soar, Mass. schools brace for a chaotic January — and lots of testing

A discarded mask beside the court during a high school basketball game.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

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In their quest to safely reopen classrooms in January amid the surge of COVID infections, schools across Massachusetts are ramping up testing, tightening restrictions — and bracing for some chaos.

Schools largely managed to stay open with relatively few COVID cases during the fall, after Governor Charlie Baker’s administration banned remote learning this year. But officials are now preparing for the likelihood that December’s record-breaking number of infections among students and staff will continue — and even worsen — in January. And if they do, the continued outbreaks inside schools will test the state’s ban on remote learning to a far more challenging degree.

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“All of us are slightly anxious,” said Jim Maloney, chief operating officer of Cambridge Public Schools, which saw COVID infections among staff and students rise to about 40 or 50 per week in December, from below 10 per week through the fall. “We had a very manageable fall,” he said, but the surge “came with a thud that week after Thanksgiving.”

The spike in Cambridge mirrored the trend statewide. In the week before Christmas, state officials reported nearly 8,600 new cases among public school students and 1,600 among staff, a 20 percent jump from the prior week, which was a record at the time.

This school year, the Baker administration pushed a return to normalcy and barred remote learning from counting toward mandatory instructional time. A handful of schools have received exemptions for brief closures after major COVID outbreaks.

State officials have repeatedly said that most infections among students and staff aren’t a result of in-school transmission, but rather from activities outside school — gatherings or family members. Public health authorities reported 117 clusters, defined as multiple COVID cases sharing a common exposure, in schools from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18.

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And while most infections in children and vaccinated people don’t result in severe illness, they still require isolation of those infected and quarantining of those exposed, disrupting more learning and causing logistical challenges for schools and families.

Many schools have shortages of staff, including substitute teachers, who can ensure classrooms stay open when teachers have to stay home. Officials fear that shortage could grow worse in January.

“There’s a real concern now, particularly about adults,” said Newton’s schools superintendent, David Fleishman. “Between quarantining and everything else, it’s challenging. We’re as fully staffed as we’ve ever been, but it’s a whole new world with COVID.”

To help protect school employees, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has supplied 6 million KN95 masks. That’s enough for one mask per day for each employee, including teachers and bus drivers, said a department spokeswoman. Previously, teachers provided their own cloth masks, but public health officials have warned of the need for stronger masks to protect against the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

In recent weeks, the state also has delivered cases of rapid tests to those school districts with increasing COVID cases, and has deployed the National Guard to help conduct testing in schools with high numbers of cases. The guard has assisted in Lowell, Framingham, and Gloucester, the spokeswoman said. And the state plans to continue its nationally recognized “test and stay” program, which allows students exposed to COVID at school to remain in class as long as they test negative daily.

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In contrast to the 2020-21 school year, many public health experts largely support continuing school in-person, given the many documented harms of remote learning, and have urged leaders to instead restrict other, higher-risk activities.

In a recent letter to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two Boston researchers urged authorities to implement “circuit breakers,” such as temporarily shutting down indoor dining, performances, elective medical procedures, and nonessential work outside of homes, to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. Coauthor Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor at Harvard Medical School, told the Globe that schools should be among the last institutions to close, and if they do, those closures should be brief and have a clear end in sight.

“Cancelling school for a month or more (as some colleges have done) without a clear data-driven explanation seems very 2020 to me, given the tools we now have,” Faust said in an e-mail. “We no longer need a one-size-fits-all blunt approach with no off-ramps. People are tired of not seeing the goal and not knowing when we’ve succeeded and when we haven’t.”

Teachers unions — while still supportive of in-person learning — are calling for the state to allow remote learning in limited instances for staff and students who must stay home but aren’t sick. Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said it makes sense to allow remote learning for a week now and then, where educators have to stay home with their sick children, for example, or when many students in one classroom test positive.

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“If you could just switch to remote learning occasionally ... you could just not skip a beat,” Kontos said. “We need to think of nimble ways to get through this winter while we wait for the [youth] vaccination rate to catch up.”

But so far, the state has been reluctant to approve requests by school districts to have remote learning count toward mandatory instructional hours, meaning any remote days would have to be made up in June.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley in November rejected a request from the Boston School Department to count seven days of remote learning — instead approving just four remote days — amid a COVID outbreak infecting dozens of students and some staff at the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain. The district kept the school building closed for seven school days anyway, citing the recommendation of local health officials.

To prepare for January, school districts are trying a range of measures to keep students and teachers as safe as possible.

In Boston and Salem, schools sent all students home for winter break with two rapid tests and instructions to test students right before they return to school. In Boston, where 100 employees tested positive the week before winter break, the district also paused all sports games and practices until at least Jan. 10.

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“If we all do our part and get our vaccine, stay vigilant about mask usage, and test regularly, we can keep our students and staff safely together in schools,” Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told families in a letter included with the test kits.

In Hopkinton, where vaccinated high school students had been allowed to go mask-less, the School Committee reinstated a mask mandate in mid-December with plans to reassess in early January.

In Cambridge, officials are ramping up pooled testing of students and staff for the first day back to school, Jan. 3. About two-thirds of the district’s 6,600 students are signed up for asymptomatic testing, and administrators said they plan to test many of them as quickly as possible.

And in Newton, school officials will bar large student gatherings, discourage in-person faculty meetings, and restrict attendance at indoor sports to either no spectators or just parents.

“January is not going to be easy, but we’re all committed to in-person schooling,” Fleishman said. “We want people to know that, yes, we’re prepared, and this is going to be hard, and we all need to really pull together.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.