As the highly contagious Omicron variant ricochets around Massachusetts, some students, parents, and teachers worry whether schools can reopen — and stay open — after the holiday break, as the state has ordered them to do.
“The numbers are really alarming,” said Marton Balla, father of two children at the Joseph P. Manning Elementary School in Jamaica Plain. “We keep wondering, are they going to have school this week?”
As the pandemic’s intensity heightened Monday, with doctors and nurses pleading for the public not to visit emergency rooms for mild COVID symptoms and the state’s death toll approaching 20,000, schools found themselves battling to reopen safely, yet again. In contrast with last year, though, this year the state has banned districts from offering remote learning in most cases. Most districts continued as usual Monday after winter break, while at least 10 districts delayed class because of low staffing or to test teachers and students.
School districts reported anecdotal increases in the number of staff with COVID, though not at unmanageable levels — for now, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. But many districts were concerned about being able to stay open in the coming weeks.
“At the moment, we seem to be treading water and doing OK,” he said. “If it weren’t for such a concern about staffing shortages and finding substitutes, I’d say we can probably get through this.”
Boston, which had planned all along to open Tuesday, was down at least 155 staff members who tested positive for COVID, raising questions about how many more educators will end up carrying the virus.
Boston school leaders said any closures would be a school-by-school choice based on staffing levels but didn’t foresee closures with a bench of 500 substitute teachers and the ability to call on central office staff to oversee classes as well, said spokesman Jonathan Palumbo. Administrators still were assessing test results late Monday, he added.
The Boston Teachers Union urged the district to share any benchmarks that might trigger a school closure.
“If staffing shortages are severe enough that schools can’t open safely, then plans need to be made in advance,” said Erik Berg, vice president of the Boston Teachers Union.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said Monday the city will do everything it can to keep schools open as Omicron bears down on the region but warned that some classrooms may need to close due to short-staffing.
Asked by reporters about the prospect of Boston students returning to remote learning, Wu said that conversation is ongoing with the state. In-person learning is better for students, she said, before adding that the district needs to be realistic about staffing challenges.
“It becomes unmanageable at a certain point to keep classrooms staffed,” she told reporters. “If we can keep community transmission rates low that means schools have a better chance.”
At least nine school districts — Lawrence, Brookline, Lexington, Burlington, Ipswich, Randolph, Wareham, Shawsheen Valley Technical, and Sharon — canceled Monday classes, while Cambridge delayed the start of school for two days.
In Cambridge, school leaders announced Friday that schools would be closed Monday and Tuesday to allow time for students to be tested Monday and their results to return Tuesday. Those two school days will be made up in June at the end of the year. Students were not required to be tested, but demand appeared high, as some families waited two hours in the cold for their child’s nose to be swabbed.
Outside Cambridge’s Morse Elementary School, Maura Conrad stood with her twin sixth-graders, grateful she missed the lines and her children could get free tests before going back to school. However, it also occurred to Conrad that school may be canceled if too many teachers and students are sick.
“It’s been a roller coaster, but we’re rolling with the punches,” she said.
Cambridge student Carina De Jesus, 12, was less upbeat and said the latest surge has been overwhelming. “It’s scary,” she said. “It would be better to [learn] remotely so kids wouldn’t get sick.”
Cambridge will use the results to decide what happens the rest of the week. “Our mindset right now is that we will reopen on Wednesday,” said spokeswoman Sujata Wycoff.
Superintendent Victoria Greer decided to close school after consulting with the health department.
““We know that a sudden closure is very challenging for our families and we certainly empathize with them,” Wycoff said. “But we did feel this was the right step to take.”
The district has at least two substitute teachers at every school and also had planned since earlier this year to allow for coverage in case of widespread staff absences, Wycoff said. The district can tap paraprofessionals and support staff to oversee students, she said.
Districts are prohibited by the state from closing schools to offer remote learning this year. Any unapproved days spent in remote learning won’t count toward the state’s mandatory instructional hours.
An upbeat Governor Charlie Baker appeared Monday in Salem touting that most school districts had reopened for in-person learning, while also nodding to the testing resources his administration has provided to schools.
“The vast majority of the school districts and schools in Massachusetts are opening today,” Baker said, “which I think is incredibly important and a terrifically positive sign about the hard work that so many people around the Commonwealth are doing every single day to make sure kids get the education that they’re entitled to and that they deserve.”
As Baker made his early morning appearance in Salem, teachers around the state and in Boston were raising questions about masks and those rapid tests provided by the state.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association raised concerns about the effectiveness of the non-medical KN95 masks the state provided to all school employees, citing a June 2020 report by an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report said the masks, manufactured by Fujian Pageone Garment Co. and meant to be 95 percent effective at filtering viral particles, were only 25 percent to 46 percent effective.
But on Monday, Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state coordinated with a Massachusetts Institute of Technology laboratory to test the masks and found them to be 87.5 percent effective.
The state also told districts: “The use of the KN95 masks is voluntary and staff should be aware that their choice of masks is ultimately a personal decision.”
Some teachers took to Twitter to show they were offended, with Boston Latin Academy teacher Michael Maguire tweeting that the masks were “inferior”: “Tell me you don’t value teachers without telling me you don’t value teachers.”
In Boston, several teachers tweeted photos showing the rapid tests they had received from the district expired days or weeks earlier. “They don’t give a damn about y’all clearly,” one person replied.
But the state said the tests it provided to teachers were not expired and were the brand iHealth, while those that were tweeted as expired were the brand Abbott Binax Now. Quinn said the state had not heard reports of expired tests from any districts besides Boston. She said the state provided Abbott Binax Now rapid tests earlier in the fall and in recent weeks instructed them not to use any that were expired.
Palumbo said the district only passed out the new tests from the state: “If people are finding different tests then they got them from somewhere else.”
The Massachusetts Teachers Association said the state was showing how little it cares for teachers by making hasty, ill-prepared plans with flawed execution.
Merrie Najimy, the association president, called for the state to allow districts to hold remote classes when their local families, educators, and school leaders believe it’s prudent. And she said the state should ensure that every community has enough staffing and resources to implement robust testing programs.
“That is a common mantra: Our educators are feeling abandoned by the state,” Najimy said.
In response, Quinn said state officials were doing their best to protect teachers.
“These rapid tests are extremely hard to come by and DESE did everything to get them in teachers’ hands this weekend,” she said.
Globe staff writer Danny McDonald contributed to this report.