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With rapid COVID test shipment delayed, teachers union calls for schools to close Monday; state rejects notion

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The Baker administration says Massachusetts public school students should return to classrooms Monday, despite a call by the state's largest teachers union to cancel classes so that educators could get rapid COVID-19 tests before returning from the holiday break.

The Baker administration says Massachusetts public school students should return to classrooms Monday, despite a call by the state’s largest teachers union to cancel classes so that educators could get COVID-19 tests before returning from the holiday break.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association on Friday called on state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to “allow districts to use Jan. 3 for administering COVID-19 tests to school staff and analyzing the resulting data,” union president Merrie Najimy said in a statement.

The union’s call followed word that the shipment of rapid COVID-19 tests for teachers was delayed. The shipment was expected to arrive in Massachusetts on Thursday, and the plan was to distribute the tests to educators to check their health status before classes resume Monday.

“Educators and the MTA have long been demanding greater access to COVID-19 tests, leading the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wednesday to announce the arrival of 200,000 tests for school staff,” Najimy said. “But without a strategic plan to make the tests available before this weekend, the ability to ensure safe learning environments for our students and staff by Monday morning is greatly reduced.”

The state’s education department Friday declined the union’s call to close schools statewide Monday.

State leaders are working “to get tests in [teachers’] hands this weekend,” said Colleen Quinn, communications director for the Executive Office of Education.

“The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education worked hard this week to make at-home rapid tests available to all public school teachers and staff in light of the testing shortages being experienced around the country,” Quinn said. “Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states supplying rapid tests to its teachers. It is a not a requirement for teachers to return to work, or necessary to reopen schools after the holiday break.

“The commissioner is not going to close schools Monday, and asks teachers to be patient as we work to get tests in their hands this weekend. It is disappointing that once again the MTA is trying to find a way to close schools, which we know is to the extreme detriment of our children.”

The Pittsfield Federation of School Employees, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said this week that the rapid testing kits purchased by the state were expected to be distributed to educators Friday.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Thursday blamed the delay in the tests arriving in the state on national supply chain issues, according to WCVB.

“The vendor that agreed to ship at-home test kits has informed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that they will not be able to deliver the tests by Friday as promised,” Quinn told WCVB.

Asked Friday morning about the status of the kits, Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Joseph Curtis said he had “no information.”

As of Friday, at least two Massachusetts school districts, including Burlington Public Schools, announced local decisions to close school Monday.

Curtis said Pittsfield Public Schools will be open Monday, as planned, unless Riley reverses course and orders a one-day delay. No other local school district had yet signaled whether it planned to alter Monday schedules as of 4 p.m. Friday. Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday reiterated his stance that students should be learning in classrooms.

“If we learned anything from this pandemic, it’s the damage that was done to kids should never be repeated. We have the tools and capabilities to keep people safe,” Baker said.

Najimy said the MTA recognizes that “delaying some students’ return to school poses challenges for families,” but she said “if there were a blizzard on Sunday evening, nobody would question the wisdom of declaring Monday a snow day.”

“With the omicron variant spreading and COVID-19 positivity rates in the state surpassing 16 percent in the most recent seven-day average — and with Massachusetts now reporting more than 1 million coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic — it is fair to say that the health and safety risks we face from COVID-19 far surpass those presented by a nor’easter,” Najimy said.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6296.

Cops and Courts Reporter

Amanda Burke is Cops and Courts Reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. An Ithaca, New York native, she previously worked at The Herald News of Fall River and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.

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