State Announces Plans for Reopening Schools in the Fall; COVID-19 Economic Relief Package

Last Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker announced his hope of reopening Massachusetts schools this fall.

The same day, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released initial guidance “that prioritizes getting students safely back to school in person, following a comprehensive set of health and safety requirements,” according to a release from the DESE.

“The goal is to get kids back to the classroom,” Baker said, adding that “as we all know, COVID-19 in Massachusetts is not static and we’ll continue to monitor the situation closely.”

He said that “part of the challenge” is “talking about a school year that starts a few months from now.”

Baker also announced that about $200 million from the state’s federal Coronavirus Relief Fund will be allocated for costs related to the safe reopening of public schools such as training for staff, reconfiguration of classrooms, hygiene supplies, and more.

“Getting kids back to school is good for kids, but it’s also good for the entire family,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito. She said that parents and guardians have “worked hard” keeping their children active, educated, and engaged while at home. 

“This public guidance will implement health and public safety requirements to make sure as many students as possible head back to classrooms this fall,” she said, as a classroom setting not only helps with academic learning, but also social, emotional, and mental health needs as well.

She said these guidelines are “grounded in the best possible medical advice,” and schools across the Commonwealth will look different as they each adapt to the changes that must be made to keep students safe.

Commissioner of Education Jeff Riley said that in addition to the guidance released on June 25, more guidance for the fall will be released in July.

The initial guidance was informed by the work of the Return to School Working Group, a coalition of parents students, teachers nurses, administrators, and other education stakeholders.

“We’ve asked schools and districts to prepare for three different models,” Riley said. The first model, which is the preferred one, is the in-person model, which would be a return to classrooms while following a “comprehensive set of health and safety requirements,” the DESE release states.

The second model is a hybrid one in which some students would go to school while the rest learn remotely, then switch after a certain period of time, which has yet to be fully determined.

The third model would be a return to strictly remote learning, which Riley said would be “in the case of a second spike of the virus.”

Riley said that the “health and safety guidelines are crucial,” and “our goal is to get as many students back to in-person learning with health and safety requirements put in place.”

He added that he recognizes that the work to prepare for this “new normal” for schools “will require resources.” He added that “we know that in particular, special attention needs to be paid to our historically underfunded school districts.”

For the DESE release as well as more information and details about the school reopening plan and the health and safety guidelines, visit mass.gov.

COVID-19 Economic Relief Package

On June 26, the Baker-Polito administration announced a $275 million economic recovery package to “generate economic growth amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a release from the state. “The $275 million package, designed to promote equity across the Commonwealth, is an update to the Administration’s Act Enabling Partnerships for Growth, the economic development legislation originally filed on March 4, 2020.”

The updated package “represents a targeted package of investments across three core areas: housing, community development, and business competitiveness,” the release states.

“By funding more affordable housing, implementing critical zoning reform, stabilizing neighborhoods, and supporting minority-owned businesses with record levels of funding, these proposed changes will bring critical relief and promote equity across Massachusetts amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” Governor Baker said in a statement. “We look forward to working with our partners in the Legislature to advance this legislation and give communities, especially those most in need, the tools and support they require to move forward.”

An additional $15 million, for a total of $40 million, has been proposed to “invest in blighted and distressed homes” to make more affordable units available.

“Women, minority, veteran, and immigrant small business owners face disproportionate challenges to accessing capital to grow their enterprises,” the release states. “To allow the state to invest in more small businesses overall, especially those owned by underrepresented populations, and to leverage greater federal and private investment dollars, the Administration is recommending increasing funding for Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) by $25 million (for a total of $35 million), a record increase in this program. These grants to small business lenders allow CDFIs to serve entrepreneurs in underserved populations with financial services, technical assistance, and credit building opportunities.”

Additionally, the Baker-Polito administration wants the Leigislature to triple funding from $5 million to $1 million for grants supporting micro-businesses.

“We have an opportunity with this 5-year plan to focus even more of our housing, community development, and business competitiveness efforts on equity and recovery as Massachusetts continues to weather the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Kennealy. “This legislation and our recommended updates tackle the housing crisis through targeted reforms and funding, and invests in the people and places who need support the most, and we look forward to getting this done.

For more information about the relief package, visit mass.gov. 

Other Updates

Baker announced on June 30 that he is making updates to the state’s travel guidance.

“As we’ve all seen, several other states are seeing sharp increases in new cases and hospitalizations which is a very real reminder to all of us about just how contagious this virus can be,” Governor Baker said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Everybody should continue to be diligent in their daily activities and if they travel, as we approach the Fourth of July weekend,” they should be especially careful.”

Baker said that while Massachusetts is reopening, he wants to “make sure” that out of state visitors are also being careful. He said that it’s likely that many people are planning to take small trips out of town this summer.

“For lots of people, that probably means staying a little closer to home, somewhere around New England or the Northeast,” he said, and “due to low infection rates across the northeast region,” the administration is changing travel guidance.

Baker announced that effective July 1, all travelers into Massachusetts are urged to self-quarantine for 14 days unless they’re coming from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York, and New Jersey. “Workers designated by the federal government as essential critical infrastructure workers” are still exempt from the self-quarantine for “work purposes,” Baker said.

“These surrounding states, like Massachusetts, are seeing a significant decline in cases and new hospitalizations,” Baker said. Travelers from all other states are still instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days. Anyone who exhibits symptoms of COVID-19 from any state should not travel to MA, he added.

“We believe this change reflects the facts on the ground and is consistent with the Commonwealth’s approach to COVID-19 standards generally,” Baker said. “It’s our hope that many folks will still be able to visit their favorite places in our great state, and we’ve proven that with some changes, a lot of patience, and hard work, we can reopen and continue to fight COVID.”

On July 1, Baker also talked about an initiative in partnership with the MBTA, City of Boston,  the Y, and the Greater Boston Food Bank to “ensure that Boston’s most vulnerable residents have access to food.”

The MBTA’s The RIDE service has been down during the pandemic, but drivers have been using the vehicles to deliver thousands of meals and groceries to those in need. The YMCA of Greater Boston is the “staging location for these vehicles to be loaded up with food deliveries,” Baker said.

“The initiative underscores the importance of collaboration between community organizations, municipalities, and the Commonwealth to help many of our most vulnerable residents during these unprecedented times,” Baker said.

For more information and updates from the Baker-Polito administration, visit mass.gov.

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