Massachusetts schools are not immune to the supply chain and workforce constraints that are affecting the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said Tuesday.
Riley briefed the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on a number of matters relating to COVID-19 and the public school system, telling members to expect a decision “by early next week” as to whether the universal mask mandate for K-12 schools will be extended beyond its current Nov. 1 end date and suggesting federal officials may soon have more to say about “test-and-stay” protocols like those used here with students exposed to COVID-19.
“I think Massachusetts is a leader in the test-and-stay program,” Riley said. “I think you’re going to see the CDC might even start talking about it in the next few weeks, but clearly we are probably going to be three to six months ahead of everybody else, because we think it’s crucial to get our kids and keep our kids in school to the greatest extent possible.”
Under a test-and-stay system, asymptomatic students and staff who have had close contact with a confirmed infection can take rapid tests daily to monitor for COVID-19 rather than quarantine. Riley said that so far, the system has “saved over 35,000 school days for kids that would have been outside of school had we not had this program.”
Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker activated up to 200 members of the National Guard to support COVID-19 testing in schools, and the Guard members were scheduled to begin administering COVID-19 tests in selected schools starting Monday after undergoing training last week.
More than 2,200 schools have signed up participate in at least one of three types of testing — test-and-stay, symptomatic testing and pool testing — according to Baker’s office.
Over the week from Oct. 4 through Oct.10, 11,004 test-and-stay tests were conducted, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data. During the same week, the positivity rate for routine pooled testing was 1.08 percent. DESE logged 1,901 new student cases of COVID-19 and 337 staff cases from Oct. 7 through Oct. 13.
Earlier this month, Democratic candidate for governor Danielle Allen called for the state to secure “a Commonwealth-wide supply of at-home antigen tests” to improve the test-and-stay program and said that the National Guard should be activated “to prepare for the rollout of pediatric vaccines.”
Riley said the Guard stepped in to support school testing efforts after “we ran into some staffing challenges” with “the vendor that was hired to do this work.” The National Guard has similarly been driving student transport vans in some districts amid a national school bus driver shortage.
Riley said he expects the Guard’s support for COVID-19 testing will “be similar to the process that took place with the buses and the National Guard, where the National Guard was able to provide the service and then as busing companies were able to hire additional people, we’re able to kind of wean ourselves off of the National Guard.”
“Probably four to six weeks, and then hopefully the vendor will be able to hire more people,” he said. “The vendor has already made great strides in hiring more people, but we wanted to make sure that everybody had this opportunity.”
DESE has said it would make diagnostic and routine COVID-19 pooled testing services available at no cost to schools this academic year through a single contract with testing provider CIC Health.
The department has also been working to support schools that have run into supply chain challenges, shortages and price increases for student meal programs, Riley said. He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has “kind of relaxed some of its menu requirements,” giving districts more flexibility.
“We’ve been working with superintendents on how to make sure that we get our kids fed,” he said. “We’ve given them tips like having them add extra times to bring deliveries in, have key drops that can be made before or after school, working with union representatives to expand delivery hours and the like.”
The board in August granted Riley the authority to mandate mask-wearing in schools, and on Sept. 27 the commissioner extended his universal mask mandate through at least Nov. 1. Riley said to expect a decision “by early next week” on whether masks will be required after that date.
The policy allows individual schools to request to drop the mask requirement for vaccinated individuals by submitting an attestation form to DESE demonstrating at least an 80 percent vaccination rate among students and staff.
The opt-out process became available last Friday. As of Monday, Riley said, nine schools had requested to lift the mask mandate — five high schools, one middle school with seventh and eighth grades, and three approved special education schools primarily serving grades nine through 12. He said DESE is “working on processing those decisions.”