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Mayor Wu: No need for systemwide shutdown of Boston schools due to COVID-19

Juan Montes, a senior custodian, performed a daily task as he cleaned one of 150 classroom doorknobs at the Donald McKay K-8 school in East Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said Thursday she didn’t think the city’s entire public school system would need to switch to remote learning because of COVID-19 staffing shortages, but left open the possibility that individual schools might have to.

“Closing our schools and moving to remote is a last resort,” she said at a news conference. “But it is one that we are prepared for, given that there are COVID and pandemic challenges that affect staffing beyond our control.”

As of a couple of days ago, 1,200 teachers and other employees were out with COVID-19 as the Omicron variant circulates widely, she said.

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“So far we do not anticipate the need to have a district-wide remote situation because of staffing. We do have plans in place school by school,” she said, noting that Boston was still seeing “very high community positivity.”

Wu said schools had reserves of Chromebook computers they were making available to students who had tested positive and needed to stay home.

State health officials on Thursday reported 18,721 new confirmed cases, 3,180 patients in the hospital with the virus, and 36 confirmed deaths. The seven-day average test positivity rate was more than 20 percent.

The state has seen a wave of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks from the highly transmissible Omicron variant. There are signs it may soon subside but experts have warned that hospitalizations and deaths will likely continue to rise for weeks after cases peak.

The state has benefited from high levels of vaccination. Governor Charlie Baker posted on Twitter on Thursday that 2.4 million of the state’s more than 5.1 million fully vaccinated people had received boosters.

In Boston, Wu spoke about the schools at a news conference where officials detailed the city’s efforts to help and relocate homeless people in the area known as Mass. and Cass. In the background, protesters who oppose an upcoming requirement that city employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 shouted “Shame on Wu!”

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The requirement goes into effect Saturday. In an appearance on WBUR’s Radio Boston show Thursday, Wu defended the mandate.

“We’re going to take every step we can. This is urgent,” she said. “The pandemic is here right now, in a surge, and this is the most powerful tool we have to end COVID-19 and to end the pandemic.”

A mandate that people provide proof of vaccination before entering certain indoor spaces, including movie theaters, restaurants, and gyms, also takes effect Saturday. Wu predicted that people would soon adjust to the mandate.

“Once it becomes widely known, the culture shifts, and it becomes something that folks don’t give a second thought to,” she said.

This week, Brookline followed suit with a similar mandate. Both mandates are phased in, with the first step beginning Saturday, when people 12 and up must show proof they have received at least one vaccine shot before entering.

“This approach helps to protect our entire community as we approach the start of the third year of a pandemic that’s touched all of our lives,” interim Health Commissioner Pat Maloney said Tuesday in a statement. “Brookline is doing its part to mitigate a continuing surge that is stretching our health care system to its limits, because vaccination is proven to severely limit the potential for hospitalization due to COVID-19.”

Salem has also adopted a similar mandate, and Somerville’s board of health is slated to meet Friday to discuss a proposed order.

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In other pandemic news, the Massachusetts Community College Council, which represents faculty and professional staff at the state’s 15 community colleges, urged college presidents to conduct the first two weeks of the coming semester remotely.

The potentially high levels of COVID-19 absences among students, faculty, and staff are “likely to cause such disruption during the first several weeks of classes that learning may not occur at all,” the union wrote in letters to the campus leaders.

The two weeks of remote learning will “help ensure that our students can have a successful semester. It will also help ensure that students, faculty, and staff are able to engage in necessary self-care should they contract COVID-19, which at this point is more likely than not because of the high transmissibility of the omicron variant,” they wrote.

Colleges begin their spring semesters between Jan. 19 and Jan. 24, said union president Margaret Wong. “We’re just trying to deal with this sudden surge,” she said. Bunker Hill Community College has said it will go “mostly remote” for the first two weeks.

“We’re really hoping the presidents of the colleges will work with us on this,” she said.

Steve Annear and Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.