Parents of the more than 46,000 Boston Public Schools students should brace themselves for at least a “possibility” that COVID-fueled staff shortages will prompt school cancellations in the coming weeks, even as district and city leaders continue to prioritize in-person learning, officials said Monday.
More than 150 BPS employees tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, and leaders of the state’s largest school district expect that number to grow before students return to classrooms on Tuesday.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and Mayor Michelle Wu both said Monday that they want Boston to keep kids in school buildings, but indicated the ongoing winter surge may make that goal difficult to achieve.
“In-person learning is better for our kids,” Wu said, describing the difference she notices in her two children when they attend school in-person. “However, we have to be realistic about staffing challenges. Districts across the country right now are facing a surge. As positivity rates go up, it becomes unmanageable at a certain point to keep classrooms staffed.”
In past years, the district coped with staffing shortages by combining classrooms, an option that Wu said is no longer safe during the pandemic.
A total of 155 teachers and administrative staff among the district’s workforce of more than 9,700 reported positive COVID-19 tests across Saturday and Sunday, Wu said. She called that figure an “exponentially larger” number than the rate of absence before the pandemic.
Asked if parents should expect that schools could be canceled in the coming weeks due to a lack of available teachers, Cassellius replied, “They should anticipate that that is a possibility. We are doing everything possible not to have that happen.”
“We are trying to protect in-person learning for our students,” she said. “We know this is where they get their meals, this is where they get their education and care, and often, many of our students with special needs, they get services they need so they don’t regress.”
Cassellius projected that transportation issues are likely this week, urging parents to monitor the BPS app for any alerts about bus delays or cancellations. The district has 105 standby drivers to cover for absences and help mitigate the impact.
While Cassellius praised mitigation methods such as pooled testing in place in Boston and other districts, both she and Wu urged Bostonians at large to get vaccinated, avoid large gatherings and take other precautions to slow the spread.
“These mitigation methods have really helped us to stop in-school transmission,” Cassellius said. “What we’re trying to do now is stop it from getting into school. That’s where the community can help with getting vaccinated, getting themselves tested and not going out if you’re not feeling well.”
Students in many other districts returned from their winter break on Monday. Gov. Charlie Baker, who visited Salem’s Saltonstall School early Monday morning, said the “vast majority” of schools opened, though some opened late or remained closed.
Baker has made a push to keep remote learning off the table, warning that it inflicted “terrible damage to kids” during the early months of the pandemic and declaring that a return to the format is “not going to happen in Massachusetts.”
The Baker administration announced plans last week to provide school districts with enough at-home rapid COVID-19 test kits to provide two tests to each school employee, suggesting staff take one test before returning from the break. Because of shipment hurdles, districts received tests on Saturday and Sunday, several days after the initial planned delivery.
Wu said BPS received its 10,000-plus state-supplied tests on Sunday, enough for each teacher to take one test.
“That is not sufficient and that will get us through Tuesday morning, barely,” she said, calling for new measures to provide regular testing to teachers.
Across the state, demand for tests during the holiday season and the omicron-fueled wave has led to long lines at testing sites and challenges finding at-home tests in stock at local stores.
After swearing in new and returning city councilors, Wu told reporters she was on her way to meet with her team “to make sure we’re tackling specifically the problem of hours-long lines in Boston.”
“This is unacceptable,” Wu said. “There’s no reason why in this city people should be waiting for hours in the cold to do something that is necessary for their family’s health and safety.”
The first-term mayor said her focus is on two areas for potential improvement: increasing the number of sites and the testing capacity at each site, and making lines “move more efficiently and faster.”
An underlying problem, Wu said, is the degree of investment in local public health infrastructure. She noted that the city relied on Whittier St. Health Center to operate its First Night vaccine and booster clinic for a large chunk of the day.
“Boston is the home to the world’s best hospitals and most brilliant experts when it comes to health and public health. We need to be investing more in our public health infrastructure overall,” Wu said. “Right now, our Public Health Commission is working so hard, but we have to partner with outside health care companies and organizations to be able to provide that staffing to do testing and vaccinations.”
In the fall, Baker activated National Guard members to fill school transportation gaps amid a driver shortage. About 200 Guard personnel drove a total of 330,000 miles in school vehicles over the following two months.
The governor said Monday that Boston “turned down the opportunity to participate with the National Guard on that program.”
Wu, who had not yet taken office as mayor when the program launched, responded Monday that National Guard members were licensed only to operate seven-passenger vans and not the larger buses that Boston uses. District officials explored renting smaller vans to supplement their bus fleet, but found there “wasn’t the availability we needed,” she said.
“We have 27,000 students who rely on Boston Public Schools for transportation,” Wu said. “Many of these are students with disabilities who have serious medical conditions and need a tremendous amount of care. Our drivers are professionally trained. They know the streets of Boston. The routes are sometimes quite complex. So this was simply not a program that was fit for Boston’s needs.”
(Copyright (c) 2022 State House News Service.