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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Days into new semester, educators ‘suffocating’ under latest COVID surge

Boston School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius on Wednesday helped dismiss children at the Nathan Hale Elementary School after substitute teaching there. As schools grapple with staggering teacher absences due to the COVID-19 pandemic, districts are looking to central office administrators, gym teachers, and teachers aides to supervise students — and even teach.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

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It’s typically the students who hope snowfall will shut down schools, but after a week of COVID-related staffing shortages, educators on Thursday were the ones wishing a winter storm would shutter campuses.

“They’re hoping it snows like hell,” Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said Thursday. “They need a break. They’re suffocating. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Schools across the state have struggled to stay open this week as Omicron sends case counts skyrocketing, making it more difficult to find educators to supervise — let alone, teach students.

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Pittsfield, in the western part of the state, closed its high school and middle school Thursday because it didn’t have enough staff. Weymouth High School students returned to school Thursday after the campus closed Wednesday because of a staffing shortage.

Early Thursday, Boston and various other districts preemptively called off school in their districts, citing the forecast of snow.

The new semester only just started, but superintendents said Thursday they were looking forward to the 6 to 8 inches of snow forecasted to blanket the region to get a reprieve amid severe staffing shortages and low student attendance. Districts are prohibited by the state from closing schools to offer remote learning this year.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu noted that 40 percent of staff or more were absent Thursday in some district schools because of COVID. “It may get to the point where we will need to move to a snow day with or without snow,” she said.

“We’re evaluating hour by hour with each school leader about what is feasible,” she added.

Boston reported more than 1,192 school staff out Thursday. In Lowell, 10 percent of staff members were absent Thursday, and in Lawrence, 324 staff members were out; 189 of them were COVID-related.

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Schools this week have been looking to gym teachers, central office workers — even the superintendent — to fill in for sick teachers. Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius stepped in Wednesday to substitute teach a fourth-grade class. Lowell Superintendent Joel Boyd taught sixth-grade math and science Thursday.

“They’re using everybody. Everybody is doing triage,” Scott said.

Besides teachers, nurses and principals are especially overwhelmed. They’ve taken on much of the testing and contact tracing required to keep schools going through a pandemic. Many schools do their own weekly surveillance testing, and nearly all districts are rapid testing any close contacts of students or teachers who test positive outside of school.

“I’m happy that we are able to remain open,” said Billerica Superintendent Tim Piwowar. “But what we’re doing right now, I don’t think anyone would call school.”

That’s because many students are staying home sick, and when they are at school, they may have a substitute teacher. (Some districts even group classes without teachers into the lunchroom to do independent work.)

That’s one reason that when thinking about Friday’s snow forecast, he said the “threshold” for calling a snow day is “lower” than usual.

He’s usually reluctant to cancel school for snow. “A day in school in January is typically more valuable than a day in June,” he said. “But given where we’re at, I don’t think that’s the case now.”

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In Cambridge, a different pandemic crisis continues. The district had canceled school for two days to test students and identify any infections before resuming class Wednesday. But the district didn’t get the 3,500 individual test results in time for school, and then later announced they would never come, “due to a variety of factors at the lab,” the district told parents in an e-mail.

However, they did share some unsetting news from its “pool tests”: Anywhere from 157 to “well over 1,000″ students were positive for COVID.

Many parents kept their children home since results were unknown.

Thursday evening, the district had shared results with at least some parents from rapid tests from students who were part of positive pools. However, the district hadn’t shared a total number of positive students.

“This is incredibly disappointing to everyone involved, especially to the many families and students who changed work and child care plans at the last minute and stood in long lines to get tested,” the district told parents in an e-mail.

Cambridge’s testing plan may have worked earlier in the pandemic, said epidemiologist Bill Hanage, whose children study in the district. Schools have typically created testing pools of 10 students. But with the extreme contagiousness of Omicron, there are likely to be far more positive cases, and it would have made more sense to make pools of five students, he said.

Otherwise, it would take too long to analyze all of the individual tests from the students in positive pools.

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There is one silver lining to the “natural experiment” he said Cambridge unwittingly conducted this week. “People certainly went to school who were infected,” said Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We’ll be able to see how well masks and the other interventions blunt Omicron.”

Globe correspondent Colleen Cronin contributed to this report.







Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.