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The omicron variant surge is putting some pressure on Mass. directive for 180 in-person school days

Jeff Riley, Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner, in 2020, with Gov. Charlie Baker at left.
Nick Czarnecki
State House News Service / Pool / Boston Herald
Jeff Riley, Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner, in 2020, with Gov. Charlie Baker at left.

We've seen a startling increase in COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts schools in recent weeks among both staff and students. Some schools have struggled to find substitute teachers just to keep the classrooms open.

Gov. Charlie Baker continues to defend his position not to go back to remote learning.

Matt Murphy of the State House News Service joins us to talk about what lawmakers and other officials are saying about the challenge of meeting the requirement for 180 school days in person.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: Numbers released last week by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show how schools have not been immune from this recent surge.

Over 50,000 cases over the previous two weeks were reported among students and staff in public schools. That's two and a half times the amount from the previous two weeks. So they are seeing the spike.

And we saw some schools have to pull back their reopening plan because of shortages of staff after the holidays.

But the governor does not want to return to remote learning.

We are hearing some lawmakers talk about a temporary move, giving some districts the flexibility to do remote learning days that could count. We did hear some calls as well for schools to start remote learning after the holidays, just to guard against, and knowing that this surge was possible, similar to the surge we saw last year after the holidays.

But the governor continues to resist these overtures. He believes that in-person learning is the healthiest environment for students. He's very firm in his position on this, and it doesn't appear that DESE is going to move in the direction of remote learning anytime soon.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Amid this spike in schools' COVID cases, a statewide K-12 indoor mask mandate is set to expire Jan. 15. What do we expect Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley to say about this?

The commissioner is expected to make his decision this week [it was announced after air time]. The decision was postponed some several weeks from December to now, as education officials wanted to take more time to review the effects of omicron.

I think there's a question of what do you do with the schools that have achieved 80% vaccination status and have been allowed to remove masks? We know there are some schools that continue without masks. There's always the possibility that that could be revised. But the administration could also just choose to stand pat and keep the requirements as is.

This is something that's gotten a lot of attention from the Legislature in particular, many who would like to see afull mask mandate in all schools. And I'm sure it will come up when the governor is expected to testify this week before the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Management and Preparedness.

It's been almost two years since the coronavirus took over the headlines. The way the state reports COVID data has gone through a lot of changes in that time. We've recently learned there are about 700 fewer beds at hospitals now across Massachusetts that can be staffed 24 hours a day compared to a year ago, and that's because of staffing shortages. We expect to get some new drilled-down metrics this week from hospitals. Can you explain how that data might give us more clarity on the COVID situation?

The way hospitals are going to start reporting data — it's not going to change the fact that hospitals are inundated and being stretched very thin. Capacity levels across the state are close to their peaks.

This is being driven both by COVID cases and other admissions. And that is what the data is going to show a little more clearly.

The hospitals will start to report inpatient numbers for people who have been admitted for COVID-19 and with COVID-19, meaning that COVID-19 was the reason they were admitted to the hospital, or they were admitted for another procedure, another illness, some underlying condition and subsequently tested positive while there for the virus.

So they also have COVID, which means that they need to be quarantined. They need to be treated with a different set of safety protocols, which is challenging for the hospitals, but it would give a clearer picture of whether or not omicron is fueling a surge in hospitalizations, or if it is a more mild variant of the COVID-19 virus. And it's something that hospitals are having to deal with, but it is not threatening the lives of as many people as previous strains of this virus did.

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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