Gov. Charlie Baker is deploying up to 450 state National Guard members to tackle two crises: 250 deployed to offset likely staffing shortages at prisons from vaccine compliance layoffs and 200 to help schools with COVID-19 testing.
“Today’s activations will ensure that we have additional staffing support for our school testing programs to help kids stay safe and will allow DOC to respond to possible staffing shortages,” Baker said, stressing he’ll do “whatever steps are necessary to safely run all correctional facilities.”
As the Herald first reported last week, the deadline for state Executive Branch employees to get the jab, including correctional officers, hits Sunday.
One memo the Herald obtained from the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union also warned of “modified lockdowns” and suspending time off, in addition to using Guard members to staff the prison system’s headquarters if too many jail officers are fired for not getting vaxxed.
One source previously told the Herald that over 300 troopers, sergeants, lieutenants, detective lieutenants, captains and staff are pushing back at the mandate, forming a working group and hiring a law firm to fight the mandate.
The Guard members will begin training this week to assist the DOC, if necessary, with “transportation and exterior security functions” which don’t involve direct contact with inmates, according to a release by the governor’s office. The release also noted that the DOC may also supplement a potential short staff with retired correction officers. The Herald previously reported that the DOC has been advertising on social media to bring retirees back for some shifts.
“As we continue to navigate an unprecedented public health crisis, well-being and safety remain our priority, and we appreciate the large number of staff who have submitted their vaccination attestation forms ahead of the deadline,” said DOC Commissioner Carol Mici. “We are grateful for the Guard’s assistance in supporting the DOC’s mission as we continue to encourage our staff to comply with the vaccination mandate.”
The Mass. Correction Officers Federated Union did not respond to a request for comment.
In schools, the National Guard will assist with expanding COVID-19 testing across the state. Already, over 2,200 schools have currently signed up to participate in at least one of three types of testing: symptomatic testing, pooled testing and the “test and stay” program, which is used to test close contacts and has saved approximately 25,000 school days for students, according to the release.
The Guard members will begin their training this week and be deployed to schools on Oct. 18. A spokesperson for Boston Public Schools said the district will not use National Guard assistance, and it will likely be more prevalent in small- to medium-sized districts.
A spokesperson for CIC Health, which provides testing services to over 1,300 Bay State schools, said in a statement that “there has been a high volume of demand in an extremely short period of time, and Massachusetts received significant interest from school districts interested in having routine testing for students and teachers in the classroom — more than double the number of schools that participated this spring,” and added that the team is working “around the clock” to scale up its testing programs. The spokesperson also cited the statewide labor shortage that cuts across industries, including health care, as a cause for the testing bottlenecks.
As the Herald previously reported, the Guard has also assisted with busing children to school amid a staffing shortage in districts including Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell and Lynn.
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