Students return from winter break on schedule
Teachers and students in the Everett Public Schools returned to the classroom, as planned, on January 3, despite the latest surge in COVID-19 cases triggered by the Omicron variant.
“While DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] provided districts with the option of taking a ‘snow day’ that could be added to the end of the school year, we joined the vast majority of Massachusetts school districts in reopening,” said Superintendent of Schools Priya Tahiliani. “Our teachers and building leaders were nimble in responding to challenges and our educators continue to do amazing work under less than ideal conditions. Our primary goal as a school system is to continue with uninterrupted in-person teaching and learning, because we know that is what is best for our students and families. However, we continue to monitor case counts, absences and staffing on a daily basis, as we also know that COVID-19 is capable of prevailing over our best intentions.”
Four days earlier, Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), called upon Governor Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to keep school districts closed to allow time for staff to be tested for the virus. In response, Baker and Riley refused to keep schools closed; however, they gave districts the option to remain closed if necessary. Only eight districts throughout the state did not open on January 3.
“If there were a blizzard on Sunday evening, nobody would question the wisdom of declaring Monday a snow day,” said Najimy.
In addition, she said DESE’s “last-minute scramble” to provide educators with 200,000 test kits was unacceptable. “This decision, made without consultation with educators’ unions and local stakeholders, is one more example of the failure of the Baker administration to get it right,” she said. “Plans for testing of this magnitude should have been communicated well in advance of schools closing for the winter break. We are tired of Band-Aid approaches from Baker and Riley when it comes to facing the biggest public health threat of our time.”
Speaking about Omicron itself, Dr. Daniel Rauch, chief of Pediatric Medicine at Tufts Children’s Hospital, said that while this is a milder strain of the virus, it is by far much more contagious. “We’re seeing a lot more spread,” said Rauch, adding that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved COVID-19 booster shots for children ages 12 and older and that the vaccine is now available for children ages five and older. “It’s clear that vaccination protects people.”
However, Rauch said a greater effort is needed to ensure that school buildings are properly ventilated. “We have not invested in keeping our kids safe in schools,” he said.
Dr. Vandana Madhavan, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, said the mutating spike protein is what makes Omicron more transmissible than the other variants. The situation continues to be compounded by influenza and other respiratory illnesses thus, pushing hospitals throughout the state to the breaking point. “The hospitals are really full; they’ve been full for months,” said Madhavan.
In addition, she said young children could contract Omicron and be asymptomatic. “The average five-year-old is going to be at a much lower risk of being symptomatic,” said Madhavan.
However, she said reopening the schools on January 3 was the right decision. “Opening the schools in a safe manner was absolutely the way to go,” said Madhavan. “School is the best place for children; they’ve had so much of their lives disrupted already.”