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Cape Cod and Island schools struggle through omicron surge

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Liz Lerner
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Local schools are struggling with the recent record-setting peak of COVID transmission.

About a fifth of students at the Monomoy and Falmouth school districts have been absent, and nearly 300 students were out at Barnstable schools.

Meanwhile, Governor Baker has held firm in not going to remote learning.

This school year has been a challenge for everyone from administrators to students, and omicron has made that even worse.

Some staff have complained about a lack of available testing.

Just before students returned from holiday break, the state tried to get a rapid, at-home COVID test kit to every school staffer in the state.

In the Monomoy school district, superintendent Scott Carpenter said the district was given 270 test kits for 370 staff.

Each kit contains two tests. Carpenter decided to split the kits and gave each staffer one test.

Officials at the Dennis-Yarmouth school district say they had a similar problem when it came to kit numbers.

In Monomoy, three teachers who were asymptomatic and otherwise would have gone to teach tested positive for the virus, using the kits before the start of the school day.

Testing students is a challenge

The state has a test-and-stay program that would test any student that was a close contact of another student. But that program is now only for unvaccinated students.

Vaccinated students don’t get tested if they are close contacts, likely because of a lack of tests. Vaccinated students are less likely to get infected with COVID, but omicron has led to more breakthrough cases.

There's a concern among school committee members that vaccinated students could be unknowingly carrying the virus to other students and staff.

Teachers are also worried. They may have a co-morbidity or might bring the virus home to an elderly family member or a child that hasn’t been able to get vaccinated.

Now, Governor Charlie Baker says 26 million tests will be coming to the state, and schools will be a priority to get those.

But, he said last week that it’s still unclear when those tests will arrive because of problems with the shipping industry.

Nantucket teacher Page Martineau is a co-president of the local school staff union. She says more tests are needed. What they have right now, she says, isn’t enough.

"If I have a couple of students in my class that have been sent home, I can go to the nurse in five days and get a test and that’s a real peace of mind," Martineau said. "That is something that we don’t have access to right now.”

Many districts are also struggling with a shortage of staffing, largely from teachers out with COVID. In the latest state statistics released last week, 37 teachers in Barnstable tested positive. 110 staffers were out in Fall River, 12 in Falmouth, 15 in Mashpee, and 6 on Nantucket.

In Monomoy, superintendent Scott Carpenter said that he told his principals and school directors that they should make sure that all of their substitute teachers are ready to come in, because they are going to need them. So far, he says the schools have been getting by.

Martineau, the Nantucket teacher, says her district doesn’t have enough subs, and that school administrators have had to step in to teach classes, in some instances.

Aside from teachers getting sick or having to quarantine, she says, the housing issue on the island is not helping. The extreme difficulty in finding an affordable place to live on Nantucket limits the teacher pool, she says. And she adds that, anecdotally, she's seen more teachers quit this year — and heard others say they will at the end of the year — because of the stress of the pandemic.

Classes struggle with low attendance numbers

With staffing shortages, students are feeling the strain. The Falmouth School Committee hears from a high-school student for an update during their regular meetings. Senior Anna Bennette gave the update last week. She said that mid-terms are coming up soon and having staff absent can be difficult.

But she also painted a picture of what this recent absentee rate looks like. Falmouth had an absentee rate last week close to 20 percent. She said that one of her classes typically has 15 students, but there were only 3 students there one day. And she said that she’s hearing that a lot from her classmates.

When students do go out after testing positive or being a close contact, it’s hard for them to keep up with assignments. Catching up can be tough when they do return.

Around the state, frustrations are boiling over. Boston students walked out Friday in protest saying they want the option to go remote.

If cases continue to go up, we could see administrators cancel schools and use their snow days. Barnstable superintendent Meg Mayo Brown made an announcement to parents to that effect. If districts use up all of their snow days, that could mean less than the required 180 days of school.

There is also recent data that the omicron surge could be slowing down. Wastewater data collected in Boston and Worcester shows a dramatic drop in the virus.

But Page Martineau, the teacher and union representative on Nantucket, says that the one thing we've learned from the coronavirus is that we'll see another variant.

Her one plea to state and local officials: upgrade ventilation at the schools. That could take a couple of years — much longer than this current COVID surge. But having the best protections against an airborne virus is important. And adequate ventilation is a big part of that.

Sam Houghton has been with the station since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.