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THE GREAT DIVIDE

‘We may reach a level of staff absences that compromises our ability to safely operate’: Schools hammered by COVID grapple to remain open

Students leave Boston Latin Academy after attending school.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

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Boston central staff administrators are rolling out lesson plans. Teachers aides in Lowell are stepping in to oversee students — anything to keep classes going while schools try to ride out the latest and most contagious COVID surge so far.

Across the state, school districts are grappling with high numbers of virus-related staff absences that threaten their ability to keep doors open. In Boston, more than 1,000 school staff, including 461 teachers, were out Tuesday, most because of the virus, according to Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang.

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Worcester reported 250 teachers and staff out, while in Chelsea 77 teachers called in sick with COVID, and nearly 50 more for other reasons. In Lawrence, 60 percent of the 294 staff absences were virus related, and Lowell had 210 teachers and staff out, with numbers there expected to climb. Watertown closed schools Tuesday to focus on processing pool tests.

“If the trend in COVID-19 cases continues in an upward direction in the coming days and weeks, we may reach a level of staff absences that compromises our ability to safely operate one or more schools,” Lowell Superintendent Joel Boyd wrote to parents Tuesday.

Schools in Massachusetts are juggling new pandemic responsibilities to test students for COVID and to conduct contact tracing amid unprecedented staffing shortages. Yet, while Cleveland, Newark, N.J., and Ontario moved to virtual school to get through the post-holiday surge, schools in Massachusetts have no option to have classes online, as the Baker administration continues to stand by the state ban on remote learning in most cases.

Schools that do close will have to add days on at the end of the year. But districts usually have only five extra days built into their calendars, meaning some may have to extend the school year or call in students on Saturdays.

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Since returning from winter break, schools are trying to avoid any disruption, and most have reopened as planned.

“If I have to go out and teach in a classroom, I’m going to do that. But our goal is to keep classes going and keep students in person,” Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said Tuesday morning.

Newton reported more than 10 percent of its 2,000-plus school employees were absent, similar to its staffing shortages in December just before the holiday break.

“Right now what worries me are buses,” said Superintendent David Fleishman. The district shares bus service with another city that has been out of school the last two days and he’s expecting disruption when the two districts start sharing drivers again Wednesday.

As schools try to operate without further spreading the highly contagious Omicron variant, the state registered more than 16,000 new COVID cases Tuesday and 94 deaths due to the virus. Emergency rooms have urged patients to stay home if they have mild COVID symptoms because they’re “overwhelmed.”

Students also missed school in high numbers across the region. Thirty percent of Boston students were absent Tuesday, the district’s first day back after the holiday break. Nineteen percent were out in Worcester and 25 percent were absent in Revere.

Cambridge Public Schools tried to prevent some challenges by canceling school Monday and Tuesday to test students and staff. The district hasn’t released results yet, but school leaders said they would decide late Tuesday whether any classes must be closed due to staff shortages.

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“I think we’re going to wait as long as we can to decide so we have the best possible data,” said spokeswoman Sujata Wycoff.

Meanwhile, many educators continued to question the quality and effectiveness of the rapid home tests and masks the state distributed to schools. Teachers took to social media to voice their concerns, displaying photos of expired testing kits and masks labeled ‘not for medical use.’

On Monday, a spokeswoman with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education originally denied the state had sent Boston Public Schools rapid tests that appeared to have expired. She later acknowledged the agency may have sent the expired rapid tests after all. The state sent most districts rapid tests made by the company iHealth packaged in white and orange boxes. However, Boston and a few special education collaboratives received the BinaxNOW rapid tests from Abbott.

In all, the state distributed 27,000 BinaxNOW tests, of which 3,000 were beyond their expiration dates. But Colleen Quinn, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Abbott had extended the expiration dates of those kits.

Boston received 10,000 BinaxNow tests, and it’s not clear how many of those tests carried the extended expiration dates, said Quinn.

Quinn also clarified previous statements on a controversy around the masks the state distributed for school employees. The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, raised concerns about the effectiveness of the nonmedical KN95 masks the state provided, citing a June 2020 report by an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The report said the masks, manufactured by Fujian Pageone Garment Co. and marketed as 95 percent effective at filtering viral particles, were in fact effective at filtering only 25 percent to 46 percent of viral particles.

Quinn said the state had distributed two different sets of masks from the same manufacturer, one of which was tested and shown to be 87.5 percent effective. She said the state is still looking into the matter.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, two of the state’s larger health care systems, Mass General Brigham and Beth Israel Lahey Health, said they are now requiring all employees receive a COVID-19 booster dose.

Citing Omicron and the additional protection the shots provide, Mass General Brigham said in a statement that employees will be required to receive their booster shots by March 1. Those who became fully vaccinated after Aug. 1, 2021, will be required to get a booster shot by June 30.

And Beth Israel Lahey Health said it is changing the definition of fully vaccinated to include a booster dose to align with the CDC’s recommendation and “in an effort to ensure we are doing everything we possibly can to protect our patients and our staff.”

Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.