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As Mass. School Districts Share Learning Plans, Local Decision-Making Rules The Day

An empty classroom.
Violet Jiang
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/124094550@N02

Schools in Massachusetts are deciding whether to start the year with in-person classes. Governor Charlie Baker says he wants local school committees to make the call, but he's making his own opinion pretty clear.

Most school committees have a Monday deadline to tell the state how they plan to start the school year: remote, in-person, or a hybrid of the two.

Baker is talking a lot about local control, but he's also making it clear he's annoyed by the many districts deciding to begin the year without kids in school. He's said kids would not know their teachers at all, and how it would be hard to teach kids to read remotely.

Reporter Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk about the week ahead in government and politics — starting with why Baker isn't comfortable with a statewide policy on whether there should be a return to in-person learning.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: Last Friday, the governor at that press conference talked about the deadline for schools to decide. He made it clear that he thinks at least beginning in a hybrid mode, with some in-person learning, is preferred — to get kids into the classroom, to get them to know their teachers, and to enable instruction, like reading, for younger kids, who may be starting in a new school year, and just in sort of a hands-on learning activity.

But local control, and the way the school system in Massachusetts is set up, with every town — virtually every town — having their own school district, or smaller regional school districts, local decision-making is vital to the history and the way Massachusetts governs itself.

Monday is the deadline for schools not only to decide, but they must submit to the state plans to do all three things: if they were to do in-person learning, remote learning fully or a hybrid of the two.

Clearly, the governor would like to see people try the hybrid model, at least to start.

But we are seeing a number of school districts, at least at this point in time, planning to start out remotely.

The idea of forcing them to come up with plans for all three — the governor and education commissioner Jeff Riley say — is to make sure that later in the year, if things get better or worse with the virus, districts are prepared to adapt.

Baker on Friday announced that because of an uptick in COVID-19 cases, he was putting the brakes on future economic reopening. He's also reducing the size of outdoor gatherings from 100 down to 50. Is this likely to make any difference?

The other big thing the governor did was to give local and state police the authority to enforce this state guidance.

Up until now, it had been what the governor described — sort of as the honor system. He thought state public officials just telling people would be enough to get it in their head and reinforce the idea that you need to keep gathering sizes small, socially distant and with masks.

That clearly was not working.

The governor and the administration believe that these larger parties — including private parties, not just the public venues, but in people's backyards — are contributing to some of the rise in numbers. So the enforcement issue is really key here to discouraging people from pursuing this behavior.

But the governor is also taking issue with the pace of the reopening, saying he was going to postpone for now the second part of the third phase. That includes indoor recreational activities like a laser tag or trampoline parks — things like that would no longer be able to open right away.

Baker talked about bars pretending to be restaurants. Restaurants can be open now, but we're likely months away from bars being allowed to operate. What's the confusion or loophole Baker's trying to close?

Bars in Massachusetts are categorized under Phase 4, which wouldn't be allowed to open until there is a vaccine or a viable treatment for COVID-19.

The governor updated his guidance — he says they've encountered instances of bars "masquerading" as restaurants — they're putting things like bags of potato chips or pretzels on a menu, and opening.

The state doesn't want to open bars because they don't want people congregating around bars to order drinks. They don't want people lingering for long periods of time as opposed to outdoor/indoor dining, where your meal has a defined beginning, middle and end point. So they're trying to be careful, and this goes to the governor's point that people may be getting a little lax, and they're seeing it with businesses as well — people trying to get around the law.

So the governor is fine-tuning the state's guidance that says food has to be prepared on-site if you're going to open. And they're hoping that will discourage bars from trying to sneak through that loophole.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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