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Free COVID Tests to Mass. Schools Delayed, Education Officials Announce

The Massachusetts Teachers Union ripped the Baker administration's plans as a last-minute scramble that's anything but the comprehensive testing program it had been calling for

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Massachusetts' plan to send out 200,000 at-home COVID-19 test to teachers and school staff members hit a snag Thursday night.

The vendor the state had been counting on for the tests will not be available by Friday, a spokesperson with the Executive Office of Education said, citing national supply chain constraints.

"DESE quickly developed an alternative plan, and will make testing kits available for distribution this weekend," spokesperson Colleen Quinn said in a statement. "Superintendents have been informed, and told not to send staff to pick up supplies at the distribution centers Friday."

Quinn went on to say districts would be informed of more details Friday, and that districts "will reopen next week as scheduled."

Massachusetts is handing out 200,000 rapid at-home COVID tests to teachers and staff, in a bid to keep students safe after winter break. But one teachers union is criticizing the plans.

The state began sending out the rapid, at-home tests Thursday. The school employees were encouraged to take one of the tests within 24 hours of returning to work.

The tests are meant to keep staff and students as safe as possible from the pandemic, which is gaining steam locally -- a record number of cases was recorded in the Bay State Thursday -- and nationally.

But the Massachusetts Teachers Union ripped the Baker administration's plans as a last-minute scramble that's anything but the comprehensive testing program it had been calling for.

"The commissioner's incompetence really leaves school districts without an opportunity to properly get the test materials, distribute them and prepare on the chance there is a local outbreak," said Merrie Najimy, the union's president.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it had secured the supply of rapid tests directly from a vendor, but Najimy said that "plans for testing of this magnitude should've been created and communicated well in advance of school vacation, even if accessibility to testing wasn't available."

A representative for DESE declined to comment earlier on the union's criticism.

The union is also calling on the state to be more flexible with a return to remote learning in the coming weeks -- something that school officials and Gov. Charlie Baker have been adamantly against.

Baker reiterated that position Thursday when asked about the union's criticism.

"Kids need to be in school," he said, adding, "The damage that was done to kids should never be repeated, and we have the tools and capabilities to keep people safe."

Of the 200,000 tests being distributed statewide, Baker said his administration thought it "was the right thing to do and we've talked to many communities, many superintendents, who said they appreciate it."

The superintendent in Milford, Kevin McIntyre, said maintenance staff would be picking up the tests Friday and offering them to district employees for pickup -- and hopefully use -- on Sunday.

His team plans to review backup plans in case there are teachers out sick.

"I think we've become very able to adapt quickly to changing conditions and I think the omicron variant is not going to be any different," McIntyre said.

Tests will be available in Boston schools by the end of the day on Monday, according to the Boston Teachers Union, and Erik Berg, its executive vice president, called it "a step in the right direction."

"We believe widespread, on-demand rapid testing in the community and in schools is a critical measure to ensuring our schools are safe as possible, especially with the highly transmissible omicron variant," he added in a statement.

Just as the state is seeing an increase in the number of COVID cases, so have the state's schools -- more than 10,000 in one week in the most recent report.

While state data shows that children -- who were more recently approved for the vaccines than adults -- are getting COVID more than other age groups, Massachusetts isn't seeing the spike in pediatric hospitalizations that other states are.

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