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State Rejects Massachusetts Teachers Association's Call To Close Schools Monday For COVID-19 Testing

BOSTON (CBS) – The Massachusetts Teachers Association want schools to stay closed Monday so teachers and staff can use the day for COVID-19 testing, but the state said Friday that's not going to happen.

Most schools are still re-opening as scheduled Monday following the holiday break. Because of the testing shortages around the county, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is sending out a total of 227,000 rapid, at-home test kits to every school district this weekend.

But, DESE said the tests, which were supposed to arrive on Thursday, have been delayed by supply chain constraints. The state is hoping teachers and staff will be able to take one of the tests before returning to the classroom on Monday.

Some communities, like Lexington and Burlington, have canceled classes for Monday. Others, like Newburyport and Watertown, will have shorter days for testing.

Cambridge made the decision to delay the return to school until Wednesday, January 5. "We highly encourage all families to do your part and have your student get a COVID test Sunday or Monday," Cambridge Public Schools said.

The MTA, the largest teachers' union in the state, said Friday teachers and staff need more time.

"If you are going to send 200,000 school employees back to work with 900,000 students the risks of spreading the coronavirus are very high," union president Merrie Najimy told WBZ-TV Friday. "The only responsible thing to do at this moment is when these kits are delivered over the weekend, as (the state) promised, we must use Monday as a day for districts to test."

The state Executive Office of Education responded hours later, rejecting the proposal.

"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," spokeswoman 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 to our children."

Rachel Kay in Watertown, one of the school districts preparing for a half-day Monday, says canceling school is a slippery slope. "I think it's critical. If we miss a day for teachers to get tested, that's not huge, but I think it's going to lead to more and more days missed, and I think the online school is not an adequate substitute."

Another teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, went a step further, calling for a return to remote learning.

"The tests provided by the state allow for testing of all teachers and staff, and that should proceed. It should then be followed by a period of remote learning until the current wave of infections abates," the AFT said in a statement.

The MTA said Thursday that Governor Charlie Baker and state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley created a "logistical nightmare" with their testing plan by "placing the burden on school staff — particularly school nurses, who are already stretched beyond their capacity."

"You simply cannot distribute 200,000 tests to three sites in the state and expect them to go to over 350 school districts," Najimy told WBZ-TV.

Baker defended the rapid test distribution plan Thursday as "the right thing to do."

"There are a lot of tools and capabilities available to keep kids and adults safe in school, and we should do everything in our power to make sure that kids stay in school," the governor told reporters.

The MTA compared their demand Friday to a snow day.

"We recognize that delaying some students' return to school poses challenges for families. But if there were a blizzard on Sunday evening, nobody would question the wisdom of declaring Monday a snow day," Najimy said in a statement Friday.

"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."

Quinn responded, saying Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states supplying rapid tests to its teachers.

"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," she said.

The state said rapid test kits are scheduled to be distributed to school districts starting on Saturday.

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