Baker extends school closings

Charlie Baker

BOSTON — As the number of coronavirus cases and deaths continue to rise, Gov. Charlie Baker has extended the closure of the state’s public and private schools and non-emergency day care centers for another four weeks.

On Wednesday, Baker said schools and regular day care facilities won’t open again until May 4. Emergency day care centers set up by the state for the children of nurses, health care workers and other front-line medical personnel battling the virus outbreak will remain open until then.

For schools, Baker’s extended a previous order closing schools until April 6. The new closure will encompass the scheduled, week-long spring vacation.

“We want to be clear ... this is not an extended school vacation,” Baker told reporters at a briefing at the Statehouse. “During this long-term closure the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will work with school districts to further develop educational programming that students can use at home.”

The extended closures come as the state Department of Public Health reported 1,838 cases of the virus and 15 deaths as of 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Baker rolled out a series of other new measures aimed at preventing spread of the virus and minimizing the economic fallout, including protections for renters and homeowners facing evictions and foreclosures, and lifting local bans on plastic bags or fees for single-use bags in order to protect grocery store workers from infected customers.

Baker acknowledged the challenges that school administrators and teachers face “to give students the tools they need to continue their learning.”

“We know it’s been difficult to be apart from students and to come up with creative ways to teach them,” he said. “We also understand how hard parents are working to keep their children engaged in the learning process.”

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said the state will be sending material to parents to keep students engaged and will help districts implement distance learning.

“This guidance was developed after speaking with and listening to many stakeholders in our educational community, and should be used by districts to build upon or harmonize with their current remote learning plans,” he said at the briefing. “Our expectation is that districts will be implementing these revised plans by early April.”

Riley said the state has partnered with the WGBH Educational Foundation to make some of its online educational resources available to educators and students.

Education officials have prioritized “vulnerable students” as part of their virus response and also set up 1,200 sites around the state to provide meals for students in need.

“We have made sure to prioritize student safety, both physical and emotional, as well as nutrition,” Riley said.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said Baker made the right call extending school closures as the virus outbreak worsens.

“We believe the governor is following the advice of the medical experts,” MTA President Merrie Najimy said. “The safety of our students and staff must come first.”

It’s not yet clear is how the prolonged shutdown will affect school calendars, including graduation dates, or whether the school year will be extended into the summer.

Under state law, public schools are required to have at least 180 days of instruction during a given school year, but Baker recently lifted that requirement.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is delaying standardized testing, which could have an impact on college admissions and how academic achievement in public schools is measured.

Riley said the state has applied for a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education allowing it to cancel or postpone the upcoming MCAS exams.

The College Board has canceled SAT exams scheduled for May 1 while ACT — another college admissions exam — has canceled its April 4 exam at 4,000 sites across the country.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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