GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Tuesday ordered all schools to remain closed for the rest of the school year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Baker called the decision the “right thing to do” given a lack of guidance on how to operate schools and transport kids to schools safely. “We believe students cannot safely return to school and avoid the risk of transmitting this virus to others,” Baker said.
The governor acknowledged the difficulty the decision is causing students and parents, and particularly graduating seniors. “They’ve all worked hard for four years and looked forward to their last season, whether to play lacrosse, run track, participate in the school play, go to prom, graduate. Because of COVID-19, a lot of this will not happen and some will happen in ways far different than anyone would have imagined it months ago,” he said.
“Keep your heads up,” Baker told seniors. “The end of the year may not proceed as planned but there will be, because there always are, brighter days ahead. We will get through the pandemic together.”
All schools across the state were ordered shut March 17 as COVID-19 began spreading through the state. Initially, the closures were set to last three weeks. Baker later extended the closure through May 4. Daycares have been closed since March 23 and will now remain closed through June 29, suggesting how long the shutdown could run.
Baker stressed that schools will continue operating remotely. “It doesn’t mean it’s time to start summer vacation early,” he said.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education plans to release additional guidance later this week – probably Friday – to improve remote learning, which could involve online education as well as hands-on learning using work packets or projects. Jeff Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the guidance will also address mental health supports and what standards should be required for students to move onto the next grade.
It will be up to school districts to determine how to grade students, although the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has recommended using a credit/no credit model.
State officials are pulling together a list of resources to help with math and science education and are partnering with WGBH to develop more resources for young children.
“We can keep doing better, keep making things easier for families,” said Riley.
Asked whether schools would be open this summer, Riley looked back at Baker before answering. “I think it’s too early to say right now,” he said.
Riley said his office is beginning to look at issues surrounding the eventual reopening of schools. Riley said other countries have temperature-checked arriving students, staggered schedules to reduce crowding, and moved desks six feet apart.
Baker said education officials also need to figure out how to alleviate crowding on buses and a way to protect older teachers who could be more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Baker called the decision to keep schools closed a difficult one. He said most people he talked to in the education world wanted to resume school. Riley said most teachers wanted to return to classrooms. “They miss the kids. They love what they do,” he said. “But the data didn’t support it.”
Baker said non-emergency childcare centers will remain closed through June 29. In the meantime, emergency childcare programs will continue caring for children of essential workers. Currently, there are 523 programs statewide serving 2,500 children a week. The state’s early education office will set up a new partnership with care.com where unemployed childcare workers can be matched with essential workers to provide in-home childcare, including for children with special needs.
Baker declined to comment on when non-essential businesses will be allowed to reopen. But Early Education Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy implied that they would not reopen May 4 as state officials want to “align the reopening of childcare with the reopening of employment across the state.”
Aigner-Treworgy said there would likely be some kind of “phased approach” to reopening childcare facilities. She noted that while parents cannot go back to work if their children are not safety cared for, educators cannot go back to work until proper protocols are put in place.
Most college campuses had already canceled in-person courses for the rest of the year. The Department of Higher Education said Monday that it will defer scheduled repayments for its non-interest loan program for four months. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said 12,000 students who have taken out loans will get their next bills in mid-July, due in August.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association has been calling on Baker to close schools for the rest of the year. MTA President Merrie Najimy said while in-person education is more effective than remote learning, she believes keeping schools closed is “essential for the health and well-being of our students and all public education staff.”
The closure is also likely to renew discussions about how to educate students for the next few months – and how to reach those students who need help the most. Najimy said before releasing new guidelines for remote learning, policymakers should assess how it’s working so far. “We must consider how families are managing the plans, which students are participating regularly, how to reach those who are not, and what additional strategies and resources must be employed to make remote learning more effective,” Najimy said.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said while closing schools is the right step, the Baker administration needs to “begin more intentionally addressing the statewide racial and economic disparities that this pandemic is exacerbating and revealing across the Commonwealth, both with regard to health and education.”
Ed Lambert of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a business-backed group, said there is now increased urgency around addressing the “digital divide” and making sure every student has access to the devices, internet and tech support they need to be able to learn remotely.
Lambert said until now, schools were instructed to focus mostly on reinforcing content students already learned, and now there may be some need to move further ahead with a curriculum. Districts must also begin developing ways to assess students’ needs next fall and deliver individualized education in a way that “brings every kid back as quickly as possible from whatever they lost.”