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Boston school leaders brace for teacher shortages after winter break and likely uptick in COVID cases

Boston Public Schools was one of the last districts to drop a mask requirement.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Boston Public Schools leaders are bracing for staffing shortages when students return after the winter break amid likely upticks in COVID-19, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, cases.

Superintendent Mary Skipper said she and district administrators are preparing contingency plans, including deploying central office staff to schools where there are shortages and offering a $250 bonus to substitute teachers for every 10 days they are called in, she said during a School Committee meeting Wednesday night.

“January and the first couple of weeks of February are usually the hardest hit when it comes to illness,” Skipper said. “We all have a very important part to play in keeping one another safe and keeping ourselves safe as we return from break.”

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An uptick in cases since the short Thanksgiving break could indicate what’s to come. Prior to Thanksgiving, the district reported 125 COVID cases in schools for the week of Nov. 17 to 23. Since then, the number of cases the district reported nearly tripled, to 349 from Dec. 8 to 14.

Last January, as Omicron surged, schools across the state struggled to stay open. In Boston, more than 1,000 school staff, including 461 teachers, missed work in early January mostly because of COVID-related illnesses. Staff absences in the district became so dire that previous superintendent Brenda Cassellius pivoted her duties to teach at the Nathan Hale School in Roxbury.

Sam Scarpino, director of AI and Life Sciences at Northeastern University, said the upcoming January may be worse, since flu cases are surging at higher rates this year, and COVID remains a problem.

Scarpino, who also leads a research group on infectious diseases at the university, said getting COVID boosters and a flu vaccination are the most significant mitigation efforts people should take ahead of the winter break.

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“The flu vaccine and the bivalent boosters are effective against the variants that are circulating,” Scarpino said. “That’s not been the case for all past opportunities to prevent a major surge. So if we want to avoid absenteeism, if we want to avoid the need for more aggressive measures around unmasking, then the most important thing that we can do is get people vaccinated.”

Like most districts across the state, BPS does not have a universal mask mandate in place. In June, the district lifted its mandate for the final days of the school year, one of the last to do so after a statewide mandate ended in February. BPS does have exceptions, including in school health offices, for close contacts after exposure, and for students returning from isolation within 10 days of their first positive test.

BPS leaders also have said they could mandate masks in classrooms or specific schools if there is evidence of a cluster or spread of COVID.

All BPS staff and students are sent home with COVID test kits every other week and are encouraged to test at home Sunday nights or Monday mornings before heading to school. Schools are expected to notify the district about other illnesses that they are seeing in schools, like the flu and RSV.

“Those few protocols that we do have in place have been really helpful to mitigate any outbreaks that may happen within the school,” said Djenny Lobo Lopes, senior director of health services in BPS. “We’re still seeing everything that we would normally see. But then when you add flu and RSV to the levels that they are right now in the state, we have to monitor those closely as well.”

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Skipper said during Wednesday’s meeting that no decisions have been made regarding changes to protocols, but that the district is meeting with the Boston Health Commission to determine if they should make any changes.

Communication about any changes will be made to families as early as next week. Skipper has said she is hesitant to require masks in schools, unless health authorities deem it necessary, because of potential social, emotional, and educational drawbacks.

A group of families demonstrated outside of BPS headquarters earlier this week, urging the district to restore universal mask mandates and testing protocols for schools, especially after holiday breaks.

“By refusing to implement a mask requirement and testing after Thanksgiving break, BPS and Mayor [Michelle] Wu are leaving our students, families like mine, staff, and the overall community vulnerable to further sickness and death,” Suleika Soto, a parent of two BPS students and cofounder of BPS Families for COVID Safety, one of the groups that organized the protest, said at Wednesday’s School Committee meeting.

“If they were really committed to ensuring that our kids do not lose days of learning, they would listen to us, they would listen to the nurses and the medical professionals, and take the necessary steps to ensure that every student can access in-personal learning in a safe way,” she said.

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Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.