Coronavirus

Charlie Baker defends push to reopen schools in communities with low COVID-19 levels

"Some of the issues that were being raised by the union just don’t make any sense."

Gov. Charlie Baker during a press conference Thursday. Barry Chin / The Boston Globe

A day after the three biggest teachers unions in Massachusetts held a rally demanding a fully remote start to the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday defended his administration’s push for most districts to begin with at least some in-person classes.

According to Baker, “nearly three quarters” of the 371 school districts in Massachusetts have indicated they plan to bring students back for either full-time or part-time in-person classes under sweeping social distancing, face covering, and hygiene guidelines.

And with newly released community-level data showing that there is a low COVID-19 prevalence — “next to no viral spread” — in nearly 90 percent of Massachusetts cities and towns, the governor refuted the notion that remote learning is necessary statewide. Last week, Baker said he could not “imagine a reason not to go back” in low-risk communities.

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While he expected some “back and forth” over the proposed criteria, Baker stressed Thursday that state officials developed their school reopening guidelines with help from epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, and the pediatric community — and that the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics had endorsed their plan.

“I think it’s our expectation — especially in those communities that really don’t have a heck of a lot of COVID at all, and where the rules and the guidance around hybrid and in-person learning are pretty well developed and have actually been in place in other countries, in many cases for a significant period of time with limited impact — that this shouldn’t be an issue for people,” Baker said.

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State officials announced Wednesday that most students — from child care through college — would be required to get the flu vaccine by the end of the year to “avoid unnecessary disruptions in learning environments” and help the health care system conserve resources, as Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito put it, given the similarity of COVID-19 and influenza symptoms.

During the press conference Thursday, the administration also announced a new state “rapid response” testing program for K-12 schools in Massachusetts that can be deployed if specific schools experience a certain number of COVID-19 cases among students or staff and there’s evidence of transmission within the school.

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But as the State House News Service reported Wednesday, the AFT Massachusetts, Boston Teachers Union, and Massachusetts Teachers Association held a rally consisting of hundreds of educators Wednesday outside the State House, calling for fully remote learning across the state.

Citing signs of a mid-summer uptick in COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts (which more recently appear to have dissipated), the three unions said in-person classes should not resume until community transmission of COVID-19 is “under control in the region,” school buildings have adequate air circulation and ventilation systems, and “free, rapid, and reliable” on-site testing and contact tracing is available to students and staff.

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Asked about the demands, Baker pointed Thursday toward a lengthy statement released Wednesday by Amherst-Pelham Regional School District officials defending their move to resume in-person classes, arguing that “the risk of other, known harms to children increases dramatically” when schools remain closed and their decision was consistent with recommendations set forth by “reputable public-health and epidemiological resources,” like the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health.

“Some of the issues that were being raised by the union just don’t even make any sense,” Baker said.

“I respect and understand the importance of making sure that this be done safely,” he continued. “But I would also ask people to respect the science, which at this point is developing a fairly decent body of evidence with respect to what works and what doesn’t when it comes to teaching in person. I mean we’ve had special-ed schools that have continued to teach all the way through this. And we visited a few of them, and kids are wearing masks, instructors are wearing masks, and the programs are basically working, and they’ve been working and involve a lot of close contact when you’re talking about special education. This can be done.”

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Baker did acknowledge that “the knowledge base around COVID is one that continues to evolve” when asked about a new study released this week by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers suggesting that children play a larger role in the asymptomatic spread of the virus than previously known.

But as much as he said officials should “commit to the science,” Baker also said they needed to “commit to the kids.”

“One of the reasons that so many people in the mental health and pediatric community are deeply concerned about this continued approach to remote learning, which in many cases last spring, I think everybody would agree, was really not learning at all, [and it’s] a really big issue,” Baker said. “And it’s one that we need to incorporate into the way we think about this health and safety of kids generally.”

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