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BPS schools reopen amid testing chaos

Rising COVID cases, faulty tests and inadequate masks mar return to class

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
BPS schools reopen amid testing chaos
Dañia Vazquez, headmaster at the Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain, greets students Tuesday morning as BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, Mayor Michelle Wu and city councilors Erin Murphy and Ruthzee Louijeune look on. PHOTO: ISABEL LEON, MAYOR’S OFFICE

Boston Public Schools students returned to class Tuesday amid a nationwide rise in COVID cases driven by the highly infectious omicron variant that locally has led to 461 classroom teachers calling in absent.

In all, more than 1,000 school staff were absent Tuesday morning, fueling questions of whether BPS schools would be able to remain open.

“We’ll assess both the health and safety issues presented, as well as presenting the operational issues that we might have or any staffing issues,” Cassellius told reporters Tuesday morning. “We have our central office teams, many of us are licensed teachers, myself included. If I have to go out and teach in a classroom, I’m going to do that. But our goal is to keep classes going and keep students in person.”

BPS Superintendant Brenda Cassellius speaks to reporters as Mayor Michelle Wu looks on. PHOTO: MAYOR’S OFFICE

Boston Teachers Union Vice President Erik Berg is calling on the district to share plans for what it will do in the event a school has too few staff available to function.

“We’re concerned that there isn’t a plan in place or a protocol to determine when a school isn’t able to open,” he told the Banner Monday. “We’d like to see transparent criteria.”

BPS spokesman Jonathan Palumbo said in an email that the district will make decisions for schools individually.

“We are working to review expected staff absences and reviewing the plans on a school by school basis,” he wrote. “We are recruiting central office staff to cover shortages.”

Should a school close, DESE will not allow the district to count remote instruction toward the 180 days schools are required to remain open.

Berg said DESE should remain flexible in the face of the current COVID surge.

“If public health authorities determine it’s not safe to keep schools open and the schools return to remote learning, we think DESE should count those days,” he said. “Will they? I don’t know.”

For BPS school staff, the resumption of classes was also marred by what appeared to be faulty tests provided by the district and faulty masks provided by the state.

While the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) sent iHealth-branded at-home tests to BPS and other districts, some BPS staff received BinaxNOW-branded tests that were past their expiration date. Several BPS teachers posted photographs on Twitter of the latter boxes with expired reagent solution — a chemical catalyst used in the at-home tests.

Palumbo acknowledged that some tests that ended up in the hands of teachers were taken from the wrong supply.

“I am told that there were some test kits from the test-and-stay supply that people might have been grabbing and that those might be the ones that are reading as expired,” BPS Communications Director Jonathan Palumbo wrote in a message to the Banner. “Per instructions from DESE and CIC we are holding those tests and not using them.”

Photos Mayor Michelle Wu posted on Twitter show city of Boston and BPS staff with boxes of tests. Among the boxes were plastic bags showing BinaxNOW tests.

Across the state, teachers have complained that masks provided by DESE are not safe to use as prevention for the spread of the coronavirus. The state has distributed KN95 masks from the Chinese manufacturer Fujian Pageone. While some were medical-grade quality rated to screen out 95% of contaminants, others distributed were non-medical-grade and only capable of screening out 46% of contaminants.

In addition to challenges with tests and masks, districts across the state are dealing with staffing shortages due to COVID infections. Some districts, including Brockton, Lawrence and Cambridge, have delayed opening to allow more time for COVID testing. The DESE-provided tests arrived late last week, leaving many districts scrambling to get them into teachers’ hands.

Palumbo said in an email to the Banner that the district has distributed 500,000 masks this year and provided other safety measures for classrooms.

“We have distributed thousands of air purifiers, one for each classroom and student-focused spaces and updated all of those filters over the summer, we also have air purifiers on hand if more are needed,” he wrote.

BPS, COVID testing, Omicron