Gov. Charlie Baker stood firm in the state's push for in-person learning Monday as some schools across Massachusetts delay students' return from winter break amid COVID-19 concerns.
"There was all kinds of talk last week about how school wouldn't open in Massachusetts today. School did pretty much across the Commonwealth," Baker said. "There are very small number of districts that aren't in school, some started late, but the vast majority of school districts in Massachusetts -- thanks to the hard work of so many people who were part of those school districts -- are open today."
Baker visited the Saltonstall School in Salem along with Mayor Kim Driscoll at 7:30 a.m. to highlight the school’s return to in-person learning after winter break.
"The most important thing we want to stress to our students and our families is the need for our students to be in person. Someone described to me virtual school is like playing basketball underwater. And I think that really sums it up," Driscoll said. "It doesn't work well for our students and families."
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Even if students wanted to learn online, remote learning simply is not an option for school districts in most cases. Superintendents across Massachusetts can't offer remote learning as an alternative option because state education officials do not count those days toward school credit.
"The rules here are pretty simple. We count in-person school as school. If the school districts not open at some point over the course of the year, they can use snow days until they run out of snow days," Baker said. "But they do need to provide their kids with 180 days of in-person education this year. And we'll do whatever we can to help them deliver on that."
Remote days would have to be made up at the end of the year, just like snow days, unless the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education grants a district special permission. Teachers unions and state officials continue to be at odds over the issue.
"We said for quite a while -- since the beginning of the school year in fact, all the way back to last spring -- that it was critically important for kids to be in school for a number of reasons," Baker said. "Some of it has to do with educational development, but a lot of it has to do with social development, human development. And frankly, in many cases, especially for some of the older kids, just their mental health status generally."
Baker noted that roughly Massachusetts 2,200 school districts participated in many of the state's testing programs. Additionally, Baker said his administration has managed to save roughly 450,000 school days this year with its test and stay program.
From Worcester to Cambridge and throughout Massachusetts this weekend, more than 227,000 rapid at-home COVID-19 tests were handed out to every public school district in the state ahead of the return to classrooms Monday from a long holiday break. But some schools will open late, or later in the week, due to COVID concerns.
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After a two-day delay -- due to supply chain issues -- the tests arrived in the Bay State on New Year's Eve and were distributed Saturday and Sunday so that teachers could test themselves before returning to the classroom Monday, following the extended holiday break.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education strongly encourages all school staffers to take one at-home COVID test no more than 24 hours before they return to work. They are being given a second test to use at their own discretion.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association has continued to be critical of the state's plan, calling it disorganized.
"We are fully committed to in-person learning but we fear that the state's dereliction of it’s responsibilities in this case is recklessly creating this mad scramble," said Merrie Najimy from the MTA. "It’s going to undermine in-person learning and it’s going to lead to safety risks in our communities.”