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Schools, businesses brace for chaotic return from winter break amid Omicron spike

Newton Superintendent David Fleishman (left) and Mayor Ruthanne Fuller handed out COVID-19 home tests to teachers Melissa Kelliher (right) and Deanna Mustachio at Newton City Hall Sunday. Fuller said they distributed more than 1,000 kits to teachers.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

When they set off on their holiday vacations less than two weeks ago, few Americans anticipated the world would look so different by the time they returned to work and school. Yet many in the Greater Boston area are now bracing for disruption Monday as students and teachers head back into the classroom, and employees in various industries head back to work amid a rampaging Omicron variant.

The pandemic’s unrelenting waves haunt working parents who don’t have anyone to look after their kids if school is closed, small businesses who depend on in-person purchases, teachers and other workers who do not have the option to do their jobs from home, and health care workers who burned out long ago. Though vaccines are so far keeping hospitalizations from climbing to their peak last winter, intensive care units are still struggling to keep up with a constant flow of critical patients.

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In response to the most recent wave, the City of Boston is ordering some employees to work from home for two weeks starting Tuesday in an effort to keep city buildings more empty and stop the variant’s spread. At least a dozen Massachusetts schools or districts have modified their return plans in recent days. Many businesses are short-staffed as they try to stay afloat while people retreat from in-person shopping.

“It’s discouraging, we’re entering year three here and it just doesn’t seem to go away,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

To ensure all public school employees could test themselves for COVID-19 before returning to class, the state planned to distribute one rapid kit, composed of two tests, for each employee across the state on Friday. That delivery was delayed to Saturday or Sunday due to supply chain challenges, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said, and shrunk to just one rapid test — half of one kit — per employee. Districts can choose to give one test to each person or a kit of two tests to staff with jobs that require the most face-to-face contact.

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As superintendents picked up test kits for their employees over the weekend, Massachusetts Teachers Association president Merrie Najimy criticized Governor Charlie Baker’s administration for failure to plan in advance to get enough test kits to teachers. She also continued to push for the state to close all schools on Monday so that districts would have enough time to analyze infection rates.

“Testing is only starting today; we don’t know what the data will be,” she said in an interview. “[The governor] is jeopardizing the entire school community, including staff, students, families, and entire towns.”

At least eight school districts — Lawrence, Brookline, Lexington, Burlington, Ipswich, Randolph, Wareham, and Sharon — canceled their first day of school after the break, while Cambridge delayed the start of school for two days. Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica announced it would be open to staff only on Monday.

Other districts opted instead to shorten school days at the start of the week. Arlington Public Schools, for instance, will have early release on Monday and Tuesday, said Superintendent Elizabeth Homan in a note to families, and focus those days on virus testing of staff and students who have given their consent.

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Burlington school district picked up around 450 test kits from a site in Franklin Saturday, said assistant superintendent Patrick Larkin. The district canceled school Monday and plans to turn cafeterias into testing sites for its employees using the rapid tests from the state. Each employee will be provided with one test.

“It would have been cleaner to give everybody a box, but at least we have enough to get everybody tested,” Larkin said.

Reports of employees testing positive or having multiple family members test positive have already been trickling in over the break, Larkin said.

“We’re a little concerned about how many people will be out to start the week,” he said. “Taking tomorrow helps us breathe a sigh of relief and we’ll know what we’re dealing with in regards to staffing without kids’ imminent arrival in the building.”

At Newton City Hall Sunday, educators lined up on a gloomy, drizzly day to collect a box containing just one rapid test each — as similar pickup events took place around the region. The school system asked educators to test themselves the night before school begins, something several teachers said they were happy to do.

“I want to honor that, because last thing I want to do is come in unknowingly sick,” said David Jackson, a math teacher at Newton North High School, as he picked up his tests. “I’m fully vaccinated, plus, I got my booster. And unfortunately, I did have COVID last year. … I’m thinking that, with the precautions that have been taken as a whole, I feel fine personally about going in. I can’t say the same for everybody.”

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Susan Bostrom, a one-on-one nurse who works with a special education student at Newton North High School, said she has been working in person all year and staying vigilant to protect her family and the student she works with.

”I wish everybody would get vaccinated,” Bostrom said. “And just be more conscious of what you can do to get this pandemic curbed. It’s not going to be done in one day.”

Mengni Cai was picking up the test Sunday in preparation for her first-ever day of work as a substitute teacher. She had done her pracitum at Mason-Rice Elementary School and is returning as a substitute teacher after finishing her master’s degree.

”I’m very excited, actually,” she said. “I know that the cases are coming up, but the show has to go on. . . . I think what we’re going to do is just protect ourselves, protect the children, and do what we can.”

People doing everything they can to protect themselves is key to keeping small businesses open, said Hurst. Owners have shifted as much business online as they can, Hurst said, but without another round of pandemic relief funds in sight, many are struggling.

“We urge consumers to remember to be vaccinated and masked up and feel safe and spend locally, keep the dollars in the local economy,” he said. “Hopefully as the normal selling seasons ramp up again, we will be through this.”

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Weary restaurant workers, meanwhile, braced for another bout of disruption. About three months ago, Jefferson Macklin and his team had decided to close their four Boston restaurants for the first week of January, giving employees at Bar Mezzana, Shore Leave, No Relation, and Black Lamb some paid time off and a chance to rest after a long year.

With cases spiking, though, their sprint to the finish line of New Year’s Eve ended up looking more like a slog, he said.

In late December, Shore Leave and Black Lamb had to temporarily close because staff were not available because of COVID exposures. Some guests canceled their reservations.

”The best option for most people was just to end up canceling,” he said. “And we understand that, [but] it’s hard for business. It’s been a hard two years, coming up on two years.”

Macklin is still planning to reopen Jan. 8, as planned. That’ll be right before Boston’s new COVID regulations go into effect on Jan. 15, requiring proof of vaccination for staff and customers. He acknowledged that things might change.

”There’s never a perfect answer,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is take risks with our employees. We want to keep our team together. We’ve worked really hard to hire, and we’ve had the best team we’ve ever had.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct how many tests each Newton schools employee received. Each employee received one box containing one test.


Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043. Taylor Dolven can be reached at taylor.dolven@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @taydolven.