Updated at 6 p.m. Dec. 30
Just days before most Massachusetts public schools reopen following the winter break, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced it is distributing 200,000 rapid antigen test kits so that every school employee in the state can test themselves for the coronavirus before returning to work.
Anna Nolin, Natick’s superintendent of schools, said the decision is huge.
“For me, anything that takes away one piece of anxiety for our education force and our staff, I’m all for it,” Nolin said. “What it will also do, however, is increase the stress level of the superintendent and the principals, because we will probably have more people infected than [those who] knew they were infected. And so to that end, I am expecting a Sunday of determining if we have enough substitute coverage to address that and seeing if we can open all our schools.”
With COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, tests hard to find, and the rapid spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, officials are concerned about potential outbreaks in schools when students and staff return in January.
“DESE staff worked very hard to secure these at-home rapid antigen tests for schools and we are all grateful for their efforts and hard work to help schools during this difficult time,” said Education Secretary James Peyser. “We all remain committed to keeping schools open despite the recent uptick in COVID cases.”
DESE spent $5.6 million on the tests using a special relief fund from the federal government. The department expects the tests to arrive on Thursday.
Last week, DESE announced they were also distributing more than six million KN95 masks to schools to provide one mask per day for all public school teachers and staff, including bus drivers.
Nolin said they’re planning to offer a drive-thru at Natick High School on Saturday for staff to pick up both rapid test kits and KN95 masks.
More than 60% of 5- to 11-year-olds are vaccinated in the district — more than double the statewide vaccination rate of 28% for that age group — but Nolin said it’s a continuing challenge to avoid outbreaks in Natick’s schools.
“We weren’t expected to contact trace this week,” Nolin said. “That said, we are aware of cases that are hitting our athletic teams and one of our elementary schools, [and] right before vacation, we were seeing a huge uptick in the amount of student infections.”
A DESE spokesperson said the state’s districts will have to pick up their test kits at distribution sites in Franklin, Randolph or Pittsfield. That could result in logistical difficulties for officials in districts that are far from those designated sites, such as those north of Boston and on the Cape and Islands.
Nolin counts herself lucky, being only about 40 minutes away, and only having to pick up a little over a thousand kits. “I think your typical pickup truck would do it,” she said.
The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Merrie Najimy, said the late notice and limited number of distribution sites is an example of a continually piecemeal approach to the pandemic by Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.
“The MTA has actually been calling for a comprehensive testing program in schools for 20 months,” Najimy said, “but this last-minute scramble by the commissioner is once again causing chaos and creating a logistical nightmare. … I mean, the commissioner’s incompetency leaves school districts no time to fully prepare to get the tests, or to develop a contingency plan if there’s a local outbreak.”
In a statement, Najimy called on Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration to develop a comprehensive plan with regard to ongoing access to coronavirus testing for staff, students and all others who frequent public schools.
“We are tired of Band-Aid approaches from Baker and Riley when it comes to facing the biggest public health threat of our time,” she added.
This story was updated to clarify there are 200,000 test kits — each with two tests inside — and add comments from the Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy.
Editor’s note: The Massachusetts Teachers Association is among GBH’s financial supporters.
Mark Herz is a reporter and editor for GBH News. Mark started his romance with journalism in his last year at Yale, where he majored in linguistics. Then, it was on to Columbia for an M.S. at the Graduate School of Journalism, where he reported from ground zero on Sept. 11.
A Connecticut native, he was also a newspaper and public radio reporter for a time in Northern Arizona. Mark has won numerous state, regional, and national awards for both his reporting and interviewing. In 2011, he won a National Edward R. Murrow Award for his series, “Policing the Mentally Ill.”
Updated at 6 p.m. Dec. 30