BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service)–An education advocacy group is calling on the state to provide and fund in-school COVID-19 vaccination clinics, masks for every school district that requests them, and a more coordinated school testing program, arguing the current pandemic approach leaves too much in the hands of individual schools and families.
“It’s really, really important that the solutions that we’re asking for are comprehensive, because otherwise, what we see is that the districts with the least resources, whose families are already struggling enough to keep all the pieces in the air, are the ones that have to scramble to try to make all of the lack of access and lack of clarity work,” Cara Berg Powers, interim executive director of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, said during a virtual press conference Wednesday. The alliance said that if Gov. Charlie Baker does not fund the three measures it is seeking in the annual budget proposal he is filing next week, the Legislature should “step in and require” them.
Like the state as a whole, schools have been reporting elevated COVID-19 case counts during the latest viral surge. Over the week from Jan. 6 to Jan. 12, districts tallied 41,063 new COVID-19 cases among students and 7,351 in staff members. The quick spread of the omicron variant has intensified focus on efforts to prevent transmission in schools, where remote learning is no longer an option and masks are required except where local officials have lifted the mandate after demonstrating a vaccination rate of at least 80 percent. Baker on Tuesday announced his administration would provide schools that opt in with weekly at-home rapid tests for their students and staff, and participating schools would end their “test and stay” programs and contact tracing. The state also makes diagnostic and routine pooled testing available to districts at no cost.
During an event Wednesday where he detailed rapid test availability for child care providers, Baker said the state had been hearing at the early education and K-12 level that “we need a lot more testing capacity, and it needs to be flexible enough to be able to meet us where we are, and we need to see those results in less than 24 hours.” “That’s why we created these models,” he said. “We think they give people a lot of optionality that they didn’t have before.” Baker said the state did not want to pursue a “one-size-fits all” approach for the hundreds of schools and districts throughout the state. According to the Executive Office of Education, more than 2,220 schools have been testing weekly through programs paid for by the state, and 915 vaccination clinics have been held at schools in about 170 communities.
Berg Powers, whose daughter attends school in Worcester, said some districts lack the available staff to take advantage of the state’s pooled testing program. Other speakers at the MEJA event said that communication with parents can be inconsistent when a student tests positive for COVID-19.
Sandy Hurwitch, a school nurse in Boston, said that coordination with pooled testing vendor CIC Health becomes an added responsibility for school nurses as they deal with routine care for students with conditions like asthma and diabetes, provide medications and respond to injuries and emergencies.
MEJA is also seeking state-sponsored “distribution of high-quality masks for every school district that requests them” and a “comprehensive state-run, in-school vaccination program for every school with a vaccination rate under the statewide average of 75 percent,” the organization said in a press release.
“You would not send a fireman into a burning building without protective gear, police on the streets without a means to communicate with their counterparts,” Springfield parent Jacqueline Velez said. “So during a global pandemic, why would we send teachers and public school staff into school buildings without the best possible accommodations we can send them in with? The least we can provide them is access to an in-school vaccination program, proper transparent testing and high-quality masks as per the recommendations of the U.S. Center for Disease Control.”
The latest Department of Public Health data shows low vaccination rates in many cities for the youngest age group eligible for COVID-19 shots. In Springfield, 11 percent of children age 5 to 11 were fully vaccinated as of a Jan. 13 DPH report. The rate for that age range was 14 percent in Lawrence, 16 percent in Worcester, 21 percent in Revere and 26 percent in Boston.
The Massachusetts House approved a bill (H 4340) Wednesday that would allocate $25 million for school districts to acquire and distribute N95 and KN95 masks, with another $5 million for boosting vaccination rates of kids aged 5 to 11, particularly in communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Top Democrats in both branches have said they want to send the bill to Baker as soon as next week.