Baker: Time for remote school to end, starting in elementary

BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts is looking to get students back in classrooms in the next few months, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday, a proposal that drew swift criticism from the state's largest teachers' union.

“With COVID cases and hospitalizations continuing to decline and vaccines well underway it’s time to set our sights on eliminating remote learning by April and starting with elementary schools," Baker said at an afternoon press conference at the Statehouse.

While most districts have incorporated some in-person classroom learning for students — whether fully or by adopting a hybrid model — about 20% of districts are still fully remote, Baker said.

Those districts serve about 400,000 students, most of whom haven't been inside a classroom since last March, he added.

“The science is pretty clear on this one. There are now dozens of reports from around the world that it’s safe to be in school,” the Republican said. “Getting kids back in school needs to be a top priority."

The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, Baker added, “but it’s been really tough on kids and their parents as they struggle to be out of the classroom and detached from their teachers and their peers.”

Baker echoed comments made earlier in the day by state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.

Riley said during the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education monthly meeting he would ask Baker next month to give him the authority to instruct districts statewide to open their classrooms full time, five days a week.

Riley said the state's pool testing program — with 157 districts and schools opting into the program as of last week — will also keep students and teachers safe.

Under the pooled testing program, 10 nose swabs from one classroom or cohort of students and staff will go into one tube to be tested together. If the pooled sample is negative, all the individuals are presumed negative. If the pooled sample comes back positive, all the individuals will be retested with the rapid test.

The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association faulted the plan outlined by Baker and Riley, saying it would take away control from local school committees while showing “callous disregard for the health and safety of school employees, students and families.”

“The CDC recommends vaccinating school employees during Phase 1 to give an added layer of protection to school employees, making in-person teaching and learning safer,” Merrie Najimy said in a statement Tuesday. “The governor keeps pushing school employees further down in Phase 2 and has yet to provide a date when they will be eligible.”

Tuesday’s announcement also “seems timed largely to distract public attention from the administration’s failed vaccine rollout,” Najimy added, calling on lawmakers “to intervene to protect the health and safety of students and educators across the state."

Riley said remote and hybrid learning models are having an adverse affect on the state's students.

“We continue to see issues with our children who are not in school or only partially in school and the mental health challenges they are facing,” he said. “We know that it’s critical to have those connections between our teachers and their students.”

Parents would retain the right to keep their children out of school and learn remotely, he said.

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VIRUS BY THE NUMBERS

The number of newly confirmed coronavirus deaths in Massachusetts rose by 30 on Tuesday, pushing the state’s confirmed COVID-19 death toll to 15,564 since the start of the pandemic.

The number of newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 increased by about 1,100 and its confirmed caseload rose to about 542,000.

The true number of cases is likely higher because studies suggest some people can be infected and not feel sick.

There were fewer than 900 people reported hospitalized Tuesday because of confirmed cases of COVID-19, with about 230 in intensive care units.

The average age of those hospitalized was 70. There were an estimated 34,000 people with current active cases of COVID-19 in the state.

The number of probable or confirmed COVID-19 deaths reported in long-term care facilities rose to 8,498.

More than 1.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Massachusetts, including more than 1 million first doses and nearly 415,000 second doses.

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WEBSITE CONTRACTOR

Massachusetts has paid more than $400,000 to a Maryland company that came under heavy criticism when the state's coronavirus vaccination sign-up system failed, according to public documents.

The state was charged $318,000 in August for a lifetime license for PrepMod Public Heath Bundle, an “end-to-end system” that promised to “automate all aspects of managing public health programming, including pandemics and other public health emergencies,” according to documents obtained by the Boston Herald.

On Jan. 7, the state was charged another $43,086 for a “project manager” and $77,445 for “senior development,” according to records.

PrepMod is the state’s largest online appointment booking vendor. It’s behind the maimmunizations.org registration website that was overwhelmed last Thursday as thousands tried to book appointments.

The crash enraged Gov. Charlie Baker and drew an apology from PrepMod.

PrepMod wasn’t the only vaccine booking technology that failed. The state’s vaxfinder.mass.gov site developed by Project Beacon to help people find available vaccine appointments also crashed.

The state has not responded to a public records request for the Project Beacon contract.

A spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 Command Center condemned the problems with both sites as “unacceptable,” but did not say what, if any, consequences there would be.