Massachusetts officials on Friday rebuffed calls by the state’s largest teachers union for schools to remain closed Monday, following a snag in the state’s plan to provide COVID-19 rapid-test kits to educators before classes resume.
A delay in receiving the promised kits prompted some districts to cancel classes on their own, to allow time for employees to ensure they are virus free before returning to work after the holiday break.
But the office of state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley doubled down on its plan to forge ahead with classes, saying Friday that shutting schools for an additional day would be “to the extreme detriment of our children.”
“The commissioner is not going to close schools Monday, and asks teachers to be patient as we work to get tests in their hands this weekend,” said Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Education, in an e-mail.
The test kits originally were intended to be available for pickup by school districts Friday. But on Thursday, the state said the tests had been held up by supply chain issues and were now expected to reach districts over the weekend.
Positive tests could leave many employees out sick when classes resume, as Massachusetts continues to set records for the number of reported daily cases since the pandemic began. Schools are bracing for a chaotic January.
Rapid tests flew off pharmacy shelves during the surge in cases this holiday season, leaving many in the state to brave hours-long lines in the cold to get tested.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association called for schools to remain closed after the holiday break, saying the state’s plan to distribute more than 200,000 tests to districts’ staff and faculty over the weekend leaves too little time to receive and analyze test results.
“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 it to be necessary,” MTA president Merrie Najimy said in a statement.
Teachers are encouraged, but not required, to use the tests before returning to school. The state has said every school district will receive enough kits to distribute two tests to each employee.
At least three school districts — Lexington, Burlington, and Cambridge — announced they will cancel instruction on Monday to give staff another day to receive the tests and report their results to school administrators. Cambridge also canceled classes on Tuesday.
The call from the MTA — which represents about 110,000 teachers, faculty, professional staff, and education support professionals at public schools, colleges, and universities — comes after the group slammed the state’s plan to distribute the tests Thursday as a “last-minute scramble.”
“Without a strategic plan to make the tests available before this weekend, the ability to ensure safe learning environments for our students and staff by Monday morning is greatly reduced,” Najimy said.
Najimy rejected the state’s reasoning that another day without school could prove harmful to students, saying that the health and safety risks posed by the swirling Omicron variant far outweigh any consequences stemming from a cancellation.
“We recognize that delaying some students’ return to school poses challenges for families. But if there were a blizzard on Sunday evening, nobody would question the wisdom of declaring Monday a snow day.”
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, went further, calling for classes to be canceled Monday and followed by a period of remote learning until the current wave of COVID infections abates. The state, however, has barred a return to remote classes.
“[Governor Charlie Baker and Commissioner Reilly] must acknowledge that returning students to school on Monday will inevitably make the crisis much worse,” Kontos said in a statement.
Asked about the criticism of the state’s test-kit plan for educators, Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday he believes testing is “the right thing to do.”
In canceling classes for Monday, Burlington Public Schools cited the need to “reopen schools safely.” A future professional development day, when students don’t attend school, will be used on Monday instead, and the school year will not be lengthened, said Superintendent Eric Conti.
“The state has been incredibly proactive with their support of both PPE and tests,” Conti said Friday via e-mail. “We are simply trying to put this generosity to the best use we can while keeping children and staff safely in school as many days as possible.”
The district has struggled with finding substitute teachers this year, he said, a challenge that will become more difficult to manage if teachers can’t return Tuesday due to a COVID-19 infection. Still, Conti said he does not anticipate having to cancel school for Tuesday.
“My hope is that no one is positive and that the decision to rearrange the calendar was wrong,” he said.
Newburyport Public Schools announced a two-hour delay for students on Monday but said that all afterschool activities and extracurricular activities will continue as scheduled.
Sudbury Public Schools also announced a two-hour delay for students on Monday.
The Salem School District, however, said it would hold school as scheduled on Monday. Superintendent Stephen Zrike said the district was able to secure rapid tests for staff and students through the city and distributed them on Dec. 22, before winter break. The district encouraged staff and students to use one test before their large holiday gathering and one before returning to school.
“Our staff and students are in a good position to have information about their status in advance of returning to school,” he said.
As of Friday, Zrike hadn’t heard when exactly the tests from the state would be available to pick up. He planned to distribute the tests as soon as they are ready.
“That will be a buffer for us, for our staff to utilize it if they need a test,” he said.
Cambridge Public Schools officials decided Friday to delay the return from holiday break until Wednesday so students can be tested for COVID-19.
“This decision puts CPS in the strongest position possible to test as many students as possible on Monday, receive results on Tuesday and return to in-person learning on Wednesday with minimal disruptions by reducing unnecessary quarantines later this week and beyond,” the school district said in a statement on its website.
Andrew Brinker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @andrewnbrinker. Taylor Dolven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @taydolven. Maria Elena Little Endara can be reached at email@example.com.