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State dismisses union’s request to close schools Monday

December 31, 2021 GMT

A request Friday by the largest teachers union in Massachusetts to keep public schools closed Monday when most students were scheduled to return after the holiday break, so staff members can go in and get tested for COVID-19, was immediately dismissed by state education officials.

The request directed at state Education Commissioner Jeffery Riley was made with input from the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s environmental health and safety committee and public health experts, union President Merrie Najimy said in a statement.

“To protect the public health and the safety of our communities, it is urgent to allow districts to use Jan. 3 for administering COVID-19 tests to school staff and analyzing the resulting data,” she said.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced this week that it had purchased 200,000 COVID-19 rapid tests that would be distributed statewide for faculty and staff testing.

“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,” Najimy said.

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A spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Education rejected the idea of keeping students out of school Monday.

“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,” Colleen Quinn said in a statement. “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.”

Gov. Charlie Baker has consistently said keeping children in school is of paramount importance.

Some school districts had already canceled Monday’s classes even before the union’s request.

Lexington Superintendent Julie Hackett tweeted late Thursday that there would be no school in the historic community’s schools Monday, citing a lack of test kits.

Burlington Superintendent Eric Conti in a message Thursday also canceled Monday’s classes, blaming the test kit issue. “Ensuring access to these tests for all staff is difficult over the weekend, if they are even available,” he said.

While acknowledging that delaying the start of school by one day would pose a hardship for some families, Najimy said there would no hesitation to close schools if there were a blizzard Sunday night.

“With the omicron variant spreading and COVID-19 positivity rates in the state surpassing 16% 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,” she said.

Making Monday a COVID-19 test day will help school districts make more informed staffing decisions and ensure that in-person learning continues, she said.

The union represents about 110,000 teachers, faculty, professional staff and education support professionals at public schools, colleges and universities.