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Schools in Massachusetts on Wednesday continued to limp along as the Omicron-fueled COVID-19 surge that has driven case counts to record levels and is straining hospitals also forced many teachers and students to stay home.
In Boston, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius found herself in front of a class of fourth graders talking about poetry, perimeter, and the three branches of government, at the Nathan Hale Elementary School in Roxbury.
“I had the top job today,” said Cassellius, surrounded by students at school dismissal.
Meanwhile, the chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, Jeri Robinson, zipped up coats and put on Band-Aids for 4-year-olds at the campus.
The pair filled in for two of the more than 1,100 absent Boston staff members Wednesday. Around 29 percent of students in the district missed school. While some districts juggled staggering staffing shortages, others struggled to identify or notify students who tested positive for COVID.
In Cambridge, controversy erupted Wednesday over the reopening of schools despite testing that indicated hundreds of children who might be attending could be infected.
The Cambridge district had delayed the start of school for two days in an ambitious plan to test all students Monday and review results Tuesday before welcoming children back to class.
But when parents woke up Wednesday, Cambridge still did not have the individual test results for 3,500 students who were tested.
Officials said pool testing indicated hundreds of students might be infected. But students were allowed to return to classes anyway, a move families questioned.
In a message to parents late Tuesday night, district leaders said 157 out of 362 testing pools were positive.
“This means that there are at least 157 positive individuals, but there could be well over 1,000,” Superintendent Victoria Greer wrote.
By mid-morning Wednesday, only 125 individual test results had come back, officials said. It wasn’t clear how many were positive.
“If we receive positive results after school starts and your student is in attendance at school, your student will be quarantined at school for immediate pickup,” wrote Greer.
Parents took to online groups and Whatsapp lists to decide how to interpret the data and instructions, many opting to keep their kids home Wednesday.
“It doesn’t make sense to send in everyone while awaiting results,” wrote one parent of a student at the King Open Elementary School. “But if they’ve notified most of the positive cases then that’s another story.”
Another parent agreed. “It defeats the whole purpose of the delayed start unless those who tested positive have been notified.”
In all, 27 percent of the district’s 6,813 students were absent Wednesday, according to spokeswoman Sujata Wycoff. By late Wednesday, the district still hadn’t received all of the test results and couldn’t tell parents when they would have them.
“It’s a complete black hole,” said Cambridge parent Diana Yousef, who kept her kindergartener home Wednesday and planned to do the same Thursday. “Nobody knows their status.”
In Boston, the absent staff included 658 teachers, 300 teacher’s aides, and 47 bus drivers, school officials said. The district reported 228 new COVID cases for teachers, and 289 for students.
Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said at a Wednesday news conference that decisions about possible closures would be made on a school-by-school basis, noting that some schools are operating with a quarter of their staff. Some schools could declare “snow days,” she said, since state officials are not allowing remote learning in most cases.
“We continue to talk with them about the rigidity of that policy,” she said.
Wu stressed the importance of people getting vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 and said she was working to increase testing in the city.
Students in neighboring Watertown were back at school Wednesday after a rocky post-holiday return. The district had welcomed children back Monday, but after reviewing student COVID pool test results from that day, the district abruptly canceled school Tuesday to test more than 700 individual students.
Results showed nearly 7 percent of students had the virus. (Ninety-eight percent of students in Watertown participate in weekly testing.) Although some parents complained about the canceled school day, Superintendent Dede Galdston said many understood once they learned how many students in the district had COVID. “Why take the chance and have them at school?,” she said.
Questions also lingered Wednesday about the masks that the state sent to all school employees last week, in anticipation of reopening this week.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education acknowledged Wednesday it may have overstated the due diligence the state performed on the masks.
“We received an update from [the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency] today that some of the masks in the distribution, masks marked ‘non-medical,’ had not been tested at MIT as previously thought,” department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis wrote in an email to superintendents early Wednesday.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association had raised concerns about the effectiveness of KN95 masks distributed by the state marked “non-medical” citing a June 2020 report by an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That 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.
State education officials initially responded that all the masks were a model that had undergone testing coordinated by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab. Those studies showed them to be 87.5 percent effective.
State officials on Wednesday acknowledged “some” of the KN95 mask sent to schools, were not tested. But Reis wrote, “All the masks that were distributed last week are KN95s and remain effective.”
The state’s update to districts did little to allay the concerns of some educators. “I need to know that when the state tells me something is a tool to keep my people safe, I can trust what they say,” said Patricia Kinsella, interim superintendent of Pioneer Valley Regional School District. She said the state’s response to the issue had “eroded that trust.”
She said she still doesn’t know whether the state-distributed masks are safe to use.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association has called for an investigation into the matter.
“Baker and Riley made false statements that put the public at risk even as the omicron variant spread like wildfire and COVID-19 cases soared,” president Merrie Najimy said in a statement. “They either knowingly lied or they demonstrated gross incompetence.”
Globe staff writer Danny McDonald contributed to this report.