The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association slammed what she called the state’s “last-minute scramble” to get 200,000 COVID-19 test kits to teachers and school staffers before the return to class from the holiday break, as state officials announced Thursday that the tests would be delayed.
President Merrie Najimy said in a statement that the rushed effort endangers “our attempts to maintain safe in-person learning as schools reopen after the holiday break.”
Najimy asserted that the decision, “made without consultation with educators’ unions and local stakeholders, is one more example of the failure of the Baker administration to get it right. Plans for testing of this magnitude should have been communicated well in advance of schools closing for the winter break.”
The labor leader accused Governor Charlie Baker and state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley of creating “a logistical nightmare all the way from distribution to testing oversight, placing the burden on school staff — particularly school nurses, who are already stretched beyond their capacity.”
Baker, asked about the criticism during an unrelated briefing Thursday on the Green Line extension, defended the decision to make the 200,000 test kits available to educators.
“Well, 200,000 tests made available to teachers, distributed to communities so that they can make those tests available to their teachers as people come back to school, we think was the right thing to do,” Baker said. “And we’ve talked to many communities, many superintendents, who said to us that they appreciate it and they’re looking forward to being able to make those tests available to their teachers.”
But on Thursday night, state education officials said those distributions would have to wait at least until the weekend.
“Due to national supply chain constraints around COVID-19 rapid tests, the vendor that agreed to ship at-home test kits has informed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that they will not be able to deliver the tests by Friday as promised,” Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the department, said in a statement.
Quinn said state officials “quickly developed an alternative plan, and will make testing kits available for distribution this weekend. Superintendents have been informed, and told not to send staff to pick up supplies at the distribution centers Friday.”
Earlier, one Massachusetts education leader defended the state’s efforts, saying state and local education officials “are all doing the best we can, so I don’t believe that criticizing gets us anywhere.”
Carol A. Woodbury, superintendent of the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District, said in an e-mail that the coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges “both for districts and those who support us at the state level.”
“There is no playbook,” Woodbury said. “I believe the Commissioner and his staff are doing the very best they can to support us. It can’t be easy. I imagine that they often find out at the last minute that these types of tools can be made available, so they let us know as quickly as possible.”
The dustup between the union and the state comes one day after the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said every school district in the Commonwealth will receive enough kits to distribute two tests to each employee.
An agency spokesperson said the department isn’t mailing the kits directly to districts; rather, school districts will pick them up for teachers at different regional distribution sites.
In a statement Wednesday, the department said it strongly encourages all school staffers to take one at-home antigen test no more than 24 hours before they return to work. Staff should notify school officials in their district if they test positive.
Leaders of several area school districts announced plans for employees to receive their tests in the coming days.
Cambridge teachers can pick up rapid antigen tests and KN95 masks from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at their school buildings, Interim Superintendent Victoria L. Geer said in an e-mail to staff on Thursday, before the state announced that tests would be delayed.
“We understand that the Omicron-related increase in COVID cases statewide has created concern about the return to school on Monday,” Geer said. “CPS has a strong mitigation plan, and if we each do our part, we can minimize the spread and impact of COVID in our community.”
Newton Public Schools teachers will be able to pick up tests at City Hall on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Superintendent David Fleishman said in an e-mail to faculty and staff on Thursday afternoon. Fleishman said the district is asking, but not requiring, that all staff members take a rapid test on Sunday.
In Westford, school will start two hours late for students on Monday so that teachers can pick up their tests before students arrive, avoiding the need for workers to open district buildings over the holiday weekend, Superintendent Christopher Chew said in an e-mail to teachers and families on Thursday.
“Testing is optional and is not required for staff to return to work, but DESE is providing them as a resource to all districts,” Chew said.
Separately this week, new guidance was released reducing the isolation period for those in K-12 schools in Massachusetts who test positive for COVID-19.
Abington Superintendent Peter Schafer on Thursday tweeted a memo that he sent to families explaining that state officials now call for five days of isolation instead of 10 for people infected with COVID-19, in line with federal guidance.
Therefore, Schafer wrote to families, if “your child tests positive for COVID-19, this updated guidance shortens the recommended time for isolation from 10 days to 5 days, if asymptomatic, followed by 5 days of wearing a mask when in public.”